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“Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” Exhibition Opening
They left during the middle of the night—often carrying little more than the knowledge that moss grows on the north side of trees. An estimated 100,000 slaves between 1830 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 chose to embark on this journey in search of freedom. They moved in constant fear of being killed or recaptured, returned and beaten as an example of what would happen to others who might choose to run. Under the cover of darkness, “fugitives” traveled roughly 20 miles each night traversing rugged terrain while enduring all the hardships that Mother Nature could bring to bear. Occasionally, they were guided from one secret, safe location to the next by an ever-changing, clandestine group known as the Underground Railroad. Many consider the Underground Railroad to be the first great freedom movement in the Americas and the first time when people of different races and faiths worked together in harmony for freedom and justice. Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad opens Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War’s Gilder Lehrman Institute Special Exhibits Gallery Hallway at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center.
Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales has spent more than a decade meticulously researching “fugitive” slaves and the ways they escaped to freedom. While the unnumbered routes of the Underground Railroad encompassed countless square miles, the path Michna-Bales documented encompasses roughly 2,000 miles and is based off actual sites, cities and places that freedom-seekers passed through during their journey. Whether they were slaves trying to escape or free blacks and whites trying to help, both sides risked everything for the cause of freedom. From the cotton plantations south of Natchitoches, La., all the way north to the Canadian border, this series of photographs by Michna-Bales helps us imagine what the long road to freedom may have looked like, as seen through the eyes of one of those who made this epic journey.
While many books have been written on the subject, there is very little visual documentation of the Underground Railroad because of its secretive nature. Today, as America becomes more and more diverse, Michna-Bales believes that an understanding of the experience—and those who lived through it—is more relevant than ever. The Underground Railroad united people from different races, genders, social levels, religions and regions in a common and worthwhile cause. It was the first civil rights movement within America. Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad encourages visitors to learn more, ask questions and open a dialogue on the subject, and in the end, provide a better understanding of our origins.
This exhibition features beautifully dramatic color photographs, ephemera and narratives that together tell the story of the Underground Railroad. The author is working with Princeton Architectural Press to prepare a publication that will combine 82 original photographs and text with a diverse sampling of related ephemera.
The exhibition was organized by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance.