Thursday, May 27, 2010


Joy and Greg at Dewey's Pizza Cincinnati’s humidity was a light, warm fog as we set off on our loop around the lake this morning.  Just 7:30 when we joined the neighborhood walkers and joggers that take advantage the amenities at Winton Woods, the huge county park where we camped for four nights (click here to read our campground review).  Though it is part of the urban Cincinnati area, the park has a rural feel – an excellent base camp for our visit.

Greg and Joy put Cincinnati on the map for us – we specifically came to visit with them, see their home and community.  It turned out to be a good stop for other reasons, too – the best of all worlds.  :)

Before we left Memphis, I visited the AAA office and stocked up on maps and tour books for all the states we plan to visit this summer.  Researching Cincinnati, one “attraction” stood out: the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  

Odel and Greg at the Freedom Center Until we arrived in Cincinnati, I didn’t realize that it was just across the Ohio River north of Kentucky.  The river is the boundary between Kentucky and Ohio, and also was the boundary between slave states and free states.  Cincinnati, on the northern bank, was a beacon for slaves fleeing from the southern states to freedom, and a center of Underground Railroad activity – a natural location for the Freedom Center.

Greg had a day off on Wednesday, so we met him at the Freedom Center (his first visit, too) at 11 am, when it opens.  We were there for three hours, leaving not because we had seen everything, but because we couldn’t absorb any more.

The history of slavery is a grim, sad story.  On top of the pain inherent in the permanent displays, the Freedom Center gallery had a special exhibit, Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America.  It is impossible for me to understand the horror and brutality humans willingly inflict on one another, and the history of lynching in the U.S is beyond belief.  I won’t go into further details; suffice to say that none of the three of us was able to study the entire exhibit.  Mobs – the very worst of humanity, magnified, unleashed, uncontrollable and unrepentant.

The permanent exhibits of the Freedom Center present the whole terrible history of slavery unflinchingly.  A two story “slave pen”, a warehouse to hold slaves for awaiting transportation south and sale, has been moved from its original location in Kentucky and rebuilt inside the center.  Chains, shackles, photographs, written records – it is all there, and it is heavy and fatiguing to view, indeed. 

Inside the slave pen Chain and Shackles

Greg inspects the slave pen.

Shackles and chains

So, what saves this from being nothing but a totally oppressive experience?  Two things: the story of the underground railroad, and ART!

Whoever planned the Freedom Center understood the inspirational power of art, and it is used liberally throughout, a break from the relentless inhumanity of the story of enslavement.  Artistic standouts are the animated film that provides the orientation to the exhibits, and the “RagGonNon” fabric art piece (click here to read about the artist) that dominated one wall of the second floor (the center is three stories).  I also appreciated the symbolism and hope of the eternal flame burning on a south-facing, third floor outdoor deck, mirroring the lighted lanterns used by “conductors” of the underground railroad to signal slaves attempting to cross the Ohio River.

Raganon Detail of Raganon

Odel contemplates “RagGonNons” (click to enlarge)

Detail of “RagGonNons” (click to enlarge).

The compassion and heroics of the “conductors” provide another antidote to the exhibits.  A second film dramatizes the fear and courage of both the escaping slaves and their helpers, helping to mitigate all we had seen, read, and heard (free audio PDAs are provided to narrate your tour).  It is an impressive place, a valuable history lesson, and we recommend it – but be prepared to get up close and personal with humankind’s terrible capacity for brutality and indifference.

On a completely different note:  we had two nice visits with Joy and Greg.  Both nights that they were free, we drove to their house (a 25 minute drive), then Joy drove us all to dinner in her new Prius.  On Tuesday night, we had outstanding pizza at Dewey’s Pizza at Oakley Square, then walked out into the balmy darkness and down the block to a historic local ice cream parlor (over 100 years old) for dessert. 

Entrees at Green Papaya Wednesday night, the menu was Thai, at the OUTSTANDING Green Papaya.  We shared delicious, unusual sushi rolls for an appetizer, then tasted each others’ entrees, each very different from the others, and each very, very good. 

Joy took us on a short driving tour of the highlights of the Hyde Park neighborhood – a huge, green park, several streets of huge, old, beautifully maintained homes, and Hyde Park Square, a tiny park in the center of a boulevard, lined on both sides with independent shops and restaurants.  It was a lovely slice of Cincinnati that we would not have seen as anonymous visitors, and we were glad for both the company and the local knowledge.  Thanks, Joy and Greg!

As I write, we are on the road east, passing through a tiny slice of West Virginia, another state to add to our map.  :)  Safe travels, all.


  1. What a great description -- I wouldn't have known anything about the Underground Railroad museum but now I definitely want to see it if we're in Cincinnati. My sister lived there (actually over the river in Kentucky, so I knew that part) for several years in the 70's but I think that's the last time I was there.

    Well done, as usual!

  2. Thanks so much for introducing me to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. If we're ever in that part of Ohio, we'll want to make sure we visit.

    This is particularly interesting to me. I am just now launching a new blog that will publish day by day material from 150 years ago, starting about the time of the nomination of Abraham Lincoln and continuing 5 years or so to the end of the civil war. The blog is called Diaries of the Civil War and it is located at While most of the materisl will be from diaries, there will also be letters and other writings from 150 years ago.

    Mike Goad
    Haw Creek Out 'n About

  3. One of my best friends in my program here in Paris is from Cincinnati and she said that she had Kentuckians who went to high school with her! I will tell her that you guys were in her hometown and loved it :)

  4. Very interesting post and we will make a point to find that museum someday when we are in that neck of the woods. Thanks for taking the time to write about it and share some pics. Most places won't allow photography, but if they knew how it entices other travelers to come see their displays, maybe they would be more lenient if being used for a personal blog.

    Karen and Steve
    (Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard

  5. We visited the Underground Railroad Museum this month also. I wrote about it on my blog, too. It was such a moving place to learn about the work to free the slaves. I enjoyed your post and was able to relive our experience there. Thanks.

  6. Oh, I wish I had been there with all of you!!! How fun to see pictures of my kids!!!!!!! I get to go visit them in July!!! I LOVE Dewey's and Aglamisis (I'm sure I spelled that wrong!) Love, R

  7. Grim and painful as the slavery era was, it provides us with some wonderful examples of creativity, cunning, courage and cooperation among people of all races who worked together in the name of freedom. Former slave Isaac Williams spent more than 20 years searching for his sold-away mother, Sally, before locating her in Alabama. Nelson T. Gant, a former slave who stood trial for helping his wife escape, won his court case and eventually became a wealthy farmer in Zanesville, Ohio. And a free black Virginian named Joseph Antoine because a temporary slave to avoid separation from his wife.

  8. I look forward to following your adventure.