I cross the Ohio River every day. Living in Kentucky, or as I refer to it, Cincinnati’s South Side, and working in Ohio, means at minimum two crossings a day. If I have lunch in Kentucky, or have errands to run those crossings can increase. There are times where it is easier to get to where I’m going in Kentucky by going into Ohio and back into Kentucky. I’ve always taken these crossings for granted until a recent experience at the National Under ground Railroad Freedom Center.
I attended the artist panel discussion for their new exhibition And Still We Rise which surveys 400 years of African-American history through 85 quilts. It is the largest exhibition of African-American quilts ever assembled. Seven of the quilters shared their processes and inspiration into making some of the quilts on exhibit. Each quilt tells a unique story including a quilt that talks about the slave pier in New Amsterdam, “Pier 11,” to a quilt dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The quilt that moved me the most was the quilt dedicated to Underground Railroad conductor Levi Coffin. Now, I know what you guys are thinking, “Of course Marcus would be moved by the Levi Coffin quilt, Levi’s UR station was in Indiana.” It was more than that I promise. It was the discussion that ensued around the hardships that slaves faced when attempting to escape for freedom. The Ohio River was the boundary between slave and free states and to cross it was the first step toward gaining freedom. I realized at that moment that I cross that same river every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and I take that for granted. For many African-Americans before me crossing the Ohio River was the difference between slavery and freedom. For me it is simply the difference between going to work and coming home, and this is how far we have come in 150 years.
One of the quilters on the panel said that these quilts chronicle “where we’ve been, where we’re heading, and what work there is still to do.” While there is still work to do, I’m going to take my simple crossings of the Ohio River a little less for granted from now on.
Have you had a similar eye-opening experience at a museum? Where was it, and what did you realize?