A new exhibit and several programs at the West Baton Rouge Museum shed light on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was not a railroad, but rather a network of secret routes and safe houses formed in the early 19th century used by those that escaped slavery in the Southern regions of the United States to the northern “free states."
The network had many routes, sometimes helping former slaves escape as far north as Canada. Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales spent over a decade researching the fugitives and the ways they escaped enslavement. Each picture in the museum's new exhibit, Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad, captures the dangerous terrains and the longevity of the journey would have looked through the lens of freedom-seekers by retracing the historical route.
"Every picture you see is a moment where someone experienced a little bit of freedom," Brady said.
The museum held a lunchtime lecture on April 10, titled "Freedom on the Mississippi River" by Carl Westmoreland, Senior Historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Westmoreland discussed the slave pen that he discovered, restored, and installed as curator of the museum.
The NUGRRFC's physical location in downtown Cincinnati is steps away from the Ohio River's natural barrier that separated the southern slave states from the freed in the North.
Westmoreland shared nuggets of wisdom from his fifty years of research, connecting Louisiana to Cincinnati through stories of slaves seeking freedom like Eliza Johnson, Solomon Northup, and his own ancestors.
"It's about us understanding the power of family, and most of all, freedom," Westmoreland said. "When I see black children, it's important that they understand how they fit in and that they become proud of who and what they are."
Mammy and the Underground Railroad, a family-friendly interactive program offered Saturday, April 13, was presented by Gaynell Brady, the founder of a traveling enrichment program called Mammy’s. She too provided unique history lessons using the knowledge of her ancestor's ties to slavery, which she's researched for more than a decade.
Brady, who dressed and expressed herself as "Mammy" led a scavenger hunt for medicinal ingredients found on the underground railroad route and the crafting of "akara," a fritter freedom-seekers would make for the trip. A mammy's role as a "conductor" guided the soon-to-be-freed by offering healing, food, and physical direction.
It's not too late to continue learning from the museum's Underground Railroad exhibit and programming. On May 15, the museum will host a lunchtime lecture and book signing with Catherine Savage-Brosman and Olivia McNeely Pass, authors of "Louisiana Poets: A Literary Guide." On May 22, there will be a noon lunchtime lecture and book signing with Bryan Wagner, author of "The Life and Legend of Bras Coupé: The Fugitive Slave Who Fought the Law, Ruled the Swamp, Danced at Congo Square, Invented Jazz, and Died for Love."