in Cincinnati features local sites
College, Elijah Anderson
home among photos
(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.
photograph by Willie Johnson tells
the story of Chapman Harris, an area
blacksmith who helped runaway slaves
cross the Ohio River to freedom.
Willie Johnsons photography exhibit Freedoms
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.
Ive 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 wed 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.
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 Johnsons
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 Johnsons
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
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 Madisons 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.
Freedoms 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 Freedoms
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.
Back to March 2009 Articles.