Freedom Center celebrates International Underground Railroad Month with arts, culture events

September is International Underground Railroad Month in Ohio. To mark the occasion, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is hosting several events and special exhibitions.

The event list includes a free day of workshops and lectures on Sept. 10, as well as poetry readings, a film screening and welcoming event for a bestselling author later in the month.

For those who don’t know, the Underground Railroad was a clandestine network of safe houses and passageways intended to assist enslaved people as they made their way from the United States south to the relative safety of the aptly named free states during the early to mid-19th century.

The Ohio River was a major character in the story of the Underground Railroad.

Notables Woodrow Keown Jr., National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Woodrow Keown Jr.

Tens of thousands of enslaved people found their way to freedom by way of the Ohio River. Once in Ohio, conductors and abolitionist communities provided them with food, rowboats, wagons and other supplies. The goal was to offer them essentials they’d need for their journeys to a new, free life in the United States and in many instances, in Canada.

Data from the Freedom Center suggests as many as 40,000 freedom seekers made their way across the Ohio River. Cincinnati had the third-largest African American population of any city in the U.S. in 1850.

Those details are a major part of the reason the Freedom Center’s home is located along the Queen City’s riverfront.

“The Freedom Center stands on the doorstep of freedom for thousands who not only dreamed but dared to pursue their freedom,” said Woodrow Keown, Jr., president and COO of the Freedom Center.

“The Underground Railroad was the nation’s first large-scale social justice movement, traveled and facilitated by so many whose names were forgotten,” he continued. “We give voice to these heroes in hopes that a new generation will have the courage to begin their own freedom journey or to be a conductor to those self-liberating.”

A list of all the events is below. Each is free, but requires advanced registration.

Guests to the Freedom Center will also receive $3 off their admission through Sept. 16.

September events

Fifth Third Community Day
Sunday, Sept. 10

The Freedom Center is offering free admission as part of its Fifth Third Community Days, made possible by the Fifth Third Foundation. As part of the activities, local artist Brent Billingsley will lead a public art project throughout the day. 

Poets Against Racism & Hate is bringing together a group of local poets for readings in the Harriet Tubman Theater. Those looking to flex their own artistic muscles can take part in a pair of free poetry workshops focused on social justice issues. Space in workshops is limited; the afternoon session will be first come, first served.

The day will also feature information sessions focused on the Greater Cincinnati region’s role in the Underground Railroad and some of the famous residents who played a role. There will be presenters from the following organizations: John Parker House, John Rankin House, Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Boone County Historical Society, Erlanger and Elsmere Historical Society, Preble County District Library and Springboro Historical Society.

Walk-up tickets for the Fifth Third Community Day are available but reserving free tickets online in advance is recommended.

Freedom Film Series: ‘A Higher Law: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858’
Thursday, Sept. 14

Producers Scott Spears and Christina Paolucci’s film highlights the complicated relationship the state of Ohio had with slavery in the late 1850s.

Despite its prominent role in the Underground Railroad and the first free soil north of the Ohio River, Ohio wasn’t necessarily a welcoming place for freedom seekers and wasn’t always supportive of those trying to help them make their way through the state to Canada. 

The film depicts the 1858 arrest of 37 people charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. The group, along with over 500 of their fellow Ohio citizens, freed an enslaved man who’d been captured by slave catchers in Oberlin, Ohio. The freedom-seeking man, John Price, had escaped two years earlier before being abducted and imprisoned in nearby Wellington.

Both producers will be in attendance and will host a discussion after the screening.

Freedom Lecture with Kristen Green, author of The Devil’s Half Acre’
Wednesday, Sept. 27

New York Times-bestselling author Kristen Green visits the Freedom Center to discuss her latest book, “The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail.” 

The story depicts the life of Mary Lumpkin, who was born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia. While there, she endured multiple horrors, including being forced to bear her enslaver’s children in the slave jail known as “Devil’s Half Acre.” Upon the enslaver’s death, Lumpkin inherited the jail and transformed it into what would become Virginia Union University, one of the country’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Green will sign copies of her book following the lecture. Copies will be available for purchase as well.