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.
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.
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.
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.
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.