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Viewing Suite for Freedom & Brothers of the Borderland at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Arthur Smith
 


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After viewing an introductory film Suite for Freedom, which is in essence an animation by international artists, depicting unfreedom, slavery and the Underground Railroad in the Harriet Tubman Theater in the second floor of The Freedom Center of the Underground Railroad moving on expectantly to another room we watched a more eerie film Brothers of the Borderland. In it Oprah Winfrey narrates a gripping drama of the stalwart efforts of two important agents in the underground escape network, Rev. John Rankin and John Parker daring death to give slaves a chance to escape into freedom amidst many battles from the slavers to annihilate them and retrieve their property, the escaping slaves. Brothers of the Borderland immersed us in a thrilling and gripping flight to freedom, showcasing the courage and cooperation of John Parker and Rev. John Rankin as they aid a woman, in the process, risking all to flee slavery. The film features a pre-show narration by Oprah Winfrey introducing the main historical figures, John Parker and Rev. John Rankin, abolitionists in Ripley, Ohio. The film is based on narratives and letters of Parker and Rankin and shown in an “environmental" theater, complete with fog rising from the river and crickets chirping in the background.

The film itself captured vividly the tension and the struggle with the sounds of battle and flight mingling with the teeming sounds of the forest and the flowing river reverberating in the theatre as we stuck glued to our chairs, watching on in horror.

It was all in Ripley, Ohio, about 150 years before now. It was the center of the Borderland, a strip of territory several miles wide on either sides of the Ohio River with human lives suspended between hope and despair, between freedom and slavery and between life and death. For decades before The Civil War, the Borderland was a combat zone between the North and South as gangs of Southerners boldly invaded the free state of Ohio to reclaim their escaped slaves. Some individuals from Ohio assisted the fleeing slaves and even infiltrated Kentucky to organize those escapes.

The Ohio River was the dividing line between North and South. After the American Revolution many anti-slavery Virginians from the continental army moved here making Ripley an ideal location for slaves to cross the river to freedom. In the 19th century the Ohio was more shallow and barely 1,000 feet wide, more than half of its present width. Nights in Ripley were filled with sounds of running feet of humans and horses, sudden cries of distress, gunshots and the clanging of chains.

Mr. John Parker who was always the subject of gossip there had secured his freedom after several attempts to escape. A skillful metal worker and an inventor with two patents to his credit, he owned a successful foundry. He risked all this fortune and even his very life night after night, organising the safe flight to freedom of many. His home sheltered countless fugitive slaves during the decades before the Civil War. Often he had to turn to his fellow Underground Railroad conductors when his house was under surveillance. He relied particularly on members of the Collins family, at whose home countless numbers of weary and frightened slaves found refuge. The conductors were a diverse group drawn from all walks of life and varied number of economic classes. So as Parker arrived in Ripley in 1845 he met an already well organized community of abolitionists some of whom had been involved in the Underground network for over twenty years. Their leader was Rev. John Rankin. He had been taught to hate slavery by his mother. After becoming a Presbyterian priest he realized that he could not safely preach against slavery in the South. So he left for Ohio in 1822 at the age of 29. In this small town he built a ministry on the prominent hill overlooking the town. He built a house that would inspire resistance to slavery for decades to come as well.

Suite for Freedom reminded us of what freedom is, introduced us to what slavery was and highlighted the triumphant role of the Underground Railroad. with Angela Bassett narrating.in a trilogy of distinct but interrelated animated shorts tied together by a musical suite. The artistry of world-class animators and musicians combined with inspiring words to create a unique visual experience.

We also had a chance to follow Caleb and his family through “Midnight Decision, " a brief film portraying the issues families faced when one of them decided to seek freedom, learning about the choices people made regarding how and when to escape, stories of how the Underground Railroad really worked. . . and the brave men and women who acted for freedom, stories of those who escaped and the inventive methods they used.

The wall mural Beyond Freedom is a visual interpretation by award-winning artist James Ransome of life for African Americans after Emancipation.

The colorful banners of abolitionists and conductors at the entrance of the gallery were created by renowned artist Jerry Pinkney.

Arthur Edgar E. Smith was born, grew up and was schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has taught English since 1977 at Prince of Wales School and, Milton Margai College of Education. He is now a Senior Lecturer at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing English, Literature, as well as Creative Writing for the past seven years.

Mr Smith is widely published with his writings appearing in local newspapers as well as in West Africa Magazine, Index on Censorship, Focus on Library and Information Work amongst others.

He was one of 17 international visitors who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U. S. State Department in 2006. His growing thoughts and reflections on this trip which took him to various US sights and sounds could be read at lisnews.org.

His other publications include: Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ‘The Struggle of the Book'

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