The Midwest played a pivotal role as a haven for those seeking freedom from the shackles of slavery. Exploring sites associated with the Underground Railroad offers not just an excursion but a journey into the depths of resilience and bravery.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Group tours here offer a chance to engage in thought-provoking discussions and witness artifacts that bring the stories of courage to life. Visits begin with an orientation film in the Harriet Tubman Theater. The film features a trilogy of distinct, yet interrelated, animated shorts. The inspiring music and words preview the compelling narratives that visitors explore in the center.For instance, “Brothers of the Borderland” immerses guests in a dramatic fight for freedom, spotlighting the selfless courage and cooperation of John Parker and Rev. John Rankin as they aid a woman risking everything to flee slavery. The experiential theater engages visitors in the story with lighting, sounds, and visual effects.

Other exhibits use artifacts and interpretive displays to describe who the enslaved were, why they were brought to the Americas, how they lived, how they were treated, who their allies were, and how, ultimately, they became free. In the largest and most traditional exhibit space, “From Slavery to Freedom,” visitors explore the Middle Passage, the institution of slavery, the rise of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War.

For a deeper dive, “ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad” uses storytelling, role-playing, and hands-on activities to present accounts of courage, perseverance, and cooperation.

Also in Cincinnati, the newly restored Harriet Beecher Stowe House connects visitors to both the pivotal Cincinnati years of the abolitionist author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the 20th-century African American pursuit of civil rights. Groups can tour rooms highlighting the house’s history in two time periods 100 years apart—the 1840s when Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Cincinnati as a young teacher, mother, and friend of the Underground Railroad, and the 1940s when the house was the Edgemont Inn, an African American boarding house and tavern listed in the “Green Book.” Visitors will gain insight about the power of literature in shaping societal perspectives and be inspired by the enduring impact of generations joining their voices for truth.

Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Cincinnati, Ohio;
Credit: Harriet Beecher Stowe House

In Princeton, Illinois, the Owen Lovejoy House offers a glimpse into the life of an influential abolitionist. Lovejoy is perhaps best known for his role in the Underground Railroad, and his involvement made the house one of the most important stations on the Underground Railroad in Illinois. The concealed compartment in which escaped slaves could be hidden makes a visit a unique and intimate experience.

Journeying to Iowa, the Tabor Antislavery Historic District preserves the spirit of a community committed to freedom. “Grounded by their religious faith and unwavering opposition to the institution of slavery, the people of Tabor never hesitated to provide help to freedom seekers entering southwest Iowa, often at great risk to themselves,” shares Harry Wilkins of Tabor Historical Society. “Tours of the John Todd House, which include an overview of Tabor’s role in the Underground Railroad, are conducted by appointment and can be tailored to any age group.”

In Detroit, Michigan, Second Baptist Church stands as one of the Midwest’s oldest African American congregations. The church served as a “station” on the Underground Railroad, receiving some 5,000 slaves before assisting them onto the next phase of their journey. By giving food, clothing, and shelter, the church was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws. Priscilla Robinson of Second Baptist Church says, “We tell the story because our present and future stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

By Michael McLaughlin

Main Image: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio; Credit: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center