Photographs along the Underground Railroad

“The Underground Railroad has been described as the first civil rights movement in the United States because it blurred racial, gender, religious, and socioeconomic lines and united people in the common cause of ending the injustice of slavery.”– Andrew J. Young (from the book foreword)


They left in the middle of the night — often carrying little more than the knowledge to follow the North Star. In the decades prior to the Civil War in 1865, an estimated one hundred thousand slaves became passengers on the Underground Railroad, a journey of untold hardship, in search of freedom.

In “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad,” a traveling exhibition which opened June 23 at the Griot Museum of Black History American photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales presents a remarkable series of images taken in the dead of night that reveal historical sites, cities and places that freedom-seekers passed through, including homes of abolitionists who offered them sanctuary.

Michna-Bales‘ haunting photographs follow a route from the cotton plantations of central Louisiana, through the cypress swamps of Mississippi and the plains of Indiana, north into Canada — a path of nearly fourteen hundred miles. They evoke the constant fear these night travelers must have felt of being killed or recaptured as they traversed harsh terrain and ominous river crossings guided from one secret, safe location to the next by the ever-changing clandestine group known as the Underground Railroad. The culmination of a ten-year research quest, “Through Darkness to Light” imagines an epic journey to liberty as it might have appeared to any freedom seeker.

Framing the powerful visual narrative in the accompanying book is an introduction by Michna-Bales; a foreword by noted politician, pastor, and civil rights activist Andrew J. Young; and essays by historian and author Fergus M. Bordewich; Robert F. Darden, a professor of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University; and Eric R. Jackson, author and associate professor of history and director of the Black Studies Department at Northern Kentucky University. The photographs in the monograph are punctuated by the powerful voices and testimonies of slaves and abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as excerpts from African-American spirituals that evoke freedom and escape.

A slave referred to as “William, Slave and Half Brother to a United…

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