Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ohio is Iroquois for 'Great River'

There! You learned something already.

Sometimes we bloggers lose bits of writing. Occasionally we get lucky and find them. Here's a post about Cincinnati that has been lurking in the laptop. BTW, we are in Phoenix now after an epic drive from Santa Fe yesterday. Big thanks to my ma and Steve for letting us shack up.


We devoted our one full day in Cincinnati to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Except for 2 classes of high schoolers, we had the place to ourselves.  The center overlooks the Ohio River, which once was the border between slave states and free ones. 

View from the museum cafe: You can see Kentucky (a former slave state)

So for runaway slaves, this was the first destination in their journey to freedom. The center has a comprehensive display on the history of slavery itself, and features several stories of amazing and ingenious escapes (like people being shipped to freedom in a crate--see E above). I thought it was a lot of information, so I worried the boys would get overwhelmed.

Here is a sample--just one of many timelines:

But there were just enough activities aimed at people their age. The best was a touch-screen interactive video narrated by an actor dressed as a runaway slave. It posed a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style challenge. Both boys did their best to escape slave catchers and dogs. They took their chances knocking on the door at houses with a candle in the window. That was a signal used by the abolitionists who sheltered runaways along the Underground Railroad. (But also by slave catchers trying to trick runaways.)

One of the most impressive exhibits was a slave house that had been moved (from a farm in rural Kentucky, I believe) and rebuilt inside the museum. The house had been sheltered for the last 100+ years inside a tobacco barn, which kept rain off and cured the wood beams. It was in remarkably good shape for being 150 years old. It had been used to house slaves awaiting sale. It was hard for me to know if boys aged 10 and 7 were getting what this all meant. I'm 40 and I doubt I can I ever really understand slavery in any deep way. The leg irons in the slave house help it hit home.

One other cool experience was a documentary narrated by Oprah that segues into a dramatized movie of a slave escape. The second part is shown in a movie theater with big trees in it and lights to dramatize the characters' crossing of the Ohio River into free territory. It was intense, and ended (mostly) happily. 

That happy ending is one thing I felt torn about. The museum focuses a lot on resilience and the risks people took to have freedom (or to help others get it). That's a good thing. The human spirit is remarkable. I wonder, though, if we end up less outraged than we ought to be. The greatest mass crime in history shouldn't leave us feeling too hopeful, should it? Maybe I will ask the boys in a couple months what they remember learning about slavery. Or maybe they're too young for me to be exposing them to this aspect of American history. But even as I write that, I know it's wishful thinking to attempt to make sense of this country without looking squarely at slavery. So many topics would make no sense without knowing the central role played by slavery and its politics. We just drove through Kansas, and that reminded me that choosing not to teach about a topic doesn't make it go away. (cough cough EVOLUTION).

To wrap up our time in Cincy, we splurged on a great meal at Nada, a fancy Mexican place downtown. Desi ordered a taco of shrimp and greens! So adventurous. He even ate some of it. The next day we were off to Daniel Boone National Forest. Where we luckily missed tornadoes and other disasters that killed 4 people in Illinois.