UGRR History

Underground Railroad exhibit
in Cincinnati features local sites

Eleutherian College, Elijah Anderson
home among photos

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(March 2009) – Madison, Ind., and the surrounding area played a prominent role in the historic Underground Railroad movement during the American Civil War. Thousands of African-Americans risked their lives to cross the Ohio River into Indiana, where they were helped by anti-slavery advocates. Many slaves were successful and found their freedom by heading north, but others were captured and returned to their masters to endure the horrors of slavery.

Chapman Harris

Photo provided

This photograph by Willie Johnson tells
the story of Chapman Harris, an area
blacksmith who helped runaway slaves
cross the Ohio River to freedom.

Willie Johnson’s photography exhibit “Freedom’s Struggle: The Underground Railroad along the Ohio River in Kentucky and Indiana,” is a documentary of the plight of slaves who ran away and the dedication of those who helped them. The 35 black-and-white images are on display through March 27 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Opened in 2004 and just a short drive from Madison, the center highlights the importance and relevance of struggles for freedom around the world and throughout history. The location of the Freedom Center was chosen because during the 1800s, Cincinnati served as a major hub of activity on the Underground Railroad.
Johnson, 58, is a Georgetown, Ind., resident and works for the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., as an assessment counselor. Prior to that, he was a former Interpretive Naturalist at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Ind.
“I’ve always loved being outdoors,” he said. “I particularly like photographing nature and outdoor adventure sports.”
Johnson, along with assistance from his friend, Jesse Barkin, worked for two years doing extensive research for the project. He did a similar exhibit about explorers Lewis and Clark that was displayed at various museums throughout the region. About four years ago, Johnson and Barkin decided to visit the Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
“Barkin was always interested in the Underground Railroad, so we thought we’d visit the center,” said Johnson. “I knew after that visit what my next project was going to be.”
He spent countless hours researching books and articles about Underground Railroad activity in the area and then began to explore sites. “This history is still being discovered,” he said. “Many of the sites are on private property with no markers and are very hard to find.”
While on a visit to sites in Madison, Johnson became enthralled by Eleutherian College, located in Lancaster, Ind., 10 miles north of Madison. Lancaster was an antislavery stronghold in the pre-civil War days. The college, with its strong roots in abolition, was involved with the Underground Railroad and served as the first stop leading north from Madison. Teachers and students helped to hide fugitive slaves being educated at the college before they moved further north.

Elijah Anderson house

Photo provided

This photograph by Willie Johnson
tells the story of Elijah Anderson, often
called the “Superintendent of the
Underground Railroad” in Madison.

“Have you ever just known a place was special?” asked Johnson. “I just knew it was a wonderful place from the minute I arrived.” Eleutherian College and a hideout cave for runaway slaves on the way to the college are part of the images in Johnson’s exhibit.
Another local site featured in the exhibit is the home of Elijah Anderson, often called the “Superintendent of the Underground Railroad” in Madison. Anderson, a blacksmith, was a free African American who lived in Madison around the mid-1800s. He was credited with bringing close to 1,000 fugitive slaves across the Ohio River to Madison. He was arrested and tried for his involvement in helping runaway slaves and was imprisoned in Frankfort, Ky., where he eventually died. His home is located in the historic Georgetown District of downtown Madison.
“The entire exhibit is uniquely done,” said Dina Bailey, curator of the Cincinnati center. “The exhibit ties everything we hold dear here at the Freedom Center.” Bailey praised Johnson’s work in putting together the exhibit. “His labels are fantastic and historically accurate, and his dedication to the research certainly shows.” The exhibit has been popular at the center, especially with school groups, according to Bailey.
She particularly liked the photographs of the nature sites but said the “stray documentary photography,” or images created of people that represent some issue or historical reference, were also “wonderful.”
Several of the re-enactment photographs are of a slave auction and a skiff crossing the Ohio River. One of the images is of an African American hitting an anvil. Johnson said that image represents the story of Chapman Harris, a blacksmith who settled near Madison’s Eagle Hollow. He helped free slaves in Carroll and Trimble County. He would hammer on an anvil as a signal for slaves that it was safe to cross the river.
“Freedom’s Struggle,” funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Indiana Arts Commission, was previously displayed at the Old Court House Museum in St. Louis, The Indiana Arts Center, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Ind., the Evansville Central Library and the Lexington, Ky., Main Library. It is being reviewed by the Anacostia Community Museum, part of the Smithsonian Museums, in Washington, D.C.

• For more information about “Freedom’s Struggle: The Underground Railroad Along the Ohio River in Kentucky and Indiana,” or the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 East Freedom Way, call (513) 333-7500 or 1-877-648-4838.

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