No matter your age, your race, or your background it is impossible to step inside a slave pen and not be changed by the experience. Squinting through the semi-dark, you can see the shackle rings that would have been heavy with chains holding people captive for weeks or months as they awaited the slave auction.
Running your fingers over the names carved into the rough wooden beams reminds you of the humanity that was caged inside the walls. Peering through one of the small windows into the outside world forces you to consider what freedom means and why it matters.
This slave pen, built in 1830, is the chief artifact of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH. The goal of the Center is to create a center of remembrance for the struggle of slavery in the past, but it also stands as a place to challenge visitors to consider the importance of freedom, now and in the future.
Is a museum about such a weighty subject really suited for children? For young visitors, slavery is a sensitive subject, but it is one that the Center presents with a candor that children can really grasp and appreciate. The museum exhibits are sparse, but have enough sensory involvement that kids will be able to understand this complex issue in new ways.
Begin your visit with children in the theatre complex, where you will view a series of three films that reveal the reality of the Underground Railroad. The first film, narrated by Oprah Winfrey, illuminates the connection of Cincinnati to the Underground Railroad. You’ll learn that the city was located in the Borderland, the first free land that a slave escaping from the South would encounter. Continuing to the next theatre, you will be immersed in the Ohio woods, as a multimedia presentation with surround sound and lighting effects presents the experience of an escape into the Borderland. Some of the scenes may be too intense for small children, but those who are able to view it will experience a memorable encounter. My oldest three (ages 6-11) said that it was almost too scary, but they all talked about how much they learned about how much bravery would be needed to be a runaway slave.
A hands-on exhibit allows children and families to journey step by step through an escape on the Underground Railroad. Through a series of choices, kids will see what it was like to travel the Underground Railroad, as well as encounter artifacts that shed new light on the slave freedom movement. My kids were enthralled by the wagon with the false bottom used to hide escaping slaves.
The third floor presents an exhibit about modern day slavery that is really best suited for ages 12 and up. Complex and mature topics like sex trafficking and prostitution are discussed. Fortunately, my kids would have to be paid good money to actually read something in a museum, so we didn’t need to delve into these tough topics with the littler kids on this particular day.
Don’t miss the opportunity to sit in the bus seats just like those on the bus where Rosa Parks took her stand against segregation in the 1960s. Outside, you will also want to make a stop in the pavilion that features a section of the Berlin Wall. My kids were intrigued to see the graffiti on one side of the wall, and the blankness of the other side. Looking at the stark contrast of each side of the wall gave us a moment to consider what freedom means all around the world, and what we can do to be sure there is freedom for all.
~ I received complimentary tickets for my visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. All opinions are my own~