Through Darkness to Light:
Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

Produced in partnership with the New Bedford Historical Society, the New Bedford Art Museum presents Through Darkness to Light.

Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad offers a  haunting glimpse of the geographic and psychological terrain traversed by an  estimated 100,000 enslaved men and women seeking freedom in the decades before  the end of the Civil War in 1865. Covering roughly twenty miles each night, their every  step was shadowed by the fear of being captured and brutalized or killed as an example  to others who might dare to seek their own liberation.

Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales spent more than a decade meticulously  researching the “fugitive” enslaved and the ways they escaped to freedom. Out of the  innumerable routes of the Underground Railroad, Michna-Bales documented a path of  roughly 1,400 miles, marked by actual cities and sites passed through by freedom seekers. From the cotton plantations just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, all the way  north to Canada, these images invoke a sense of the journey out of bondage—of what it  might be like to run in fear for roughly three months, with very little help along the way, seeking the fundamental human right of freedom.

Considered by many to be the first Civil Rights movement within the United States, the  Underground Railroad was intercultural and coded in its design to secure that right.  People of different races, genders, classes, faiths, and regions worked together to  covertly guide the enslaved from one safe location to the next, until they reached  freedom. Because secrecy was necessary, there is little visual documentation of the  Underground Railroad. Some locations are based on word-of-mouth descriptions and  oral histories, and careful consideration has been taken here to respect this tradition.  But these sites are included to honor both the oral legacy of the Railroad and its  centrality to US history, ultimately charting a path toward greater awareness of our  shared cultural roots.

Essay

The Underground Railroad was a national movement with far-reaching political and moral consequences that did much to change antebellum America. For the first time, with the Underground Railroad, white and black Americans collaborated in a mass movement based on the principle of personal, active responsibility for others’ human rights.
Founded in Philadelphia by free blacks and Quakers at the end of the eighteenth century, the Underground Railroad extended from the upper South to Canada. Although some fugitive slaves managed against terrible odds to escape from the Deep South, most successful freedom seekers came from Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, which all had long borders with the free states. A “saltwater underground” also operated from ports on the East Coast, spiriting freedom seekers to the North and to British possessions in the Caribbean, where slavery had been outlawed.
Along with “stationmasters,” who ran safe houses, and guides, or “conductors,” the Underground included itinerant preachers, teamsters, peddlers who carried messages in their packs, slaves who themselves never fled but provided information about escape routes to those who did, sailors and ships’ stewards who concealed runaways on their vessels, lawyers who were willing to defend fugitives and those who harbored them, businessmen who provided needed funds, and others who protected those who engaged in clandestine activity and made it possible for them to continue their work.
In practice, the Underground Railroad was a model of democracy in action. As Isaac Beck, a stationmaster in Ohio, put it, “There was no regular organization, no constitution, no officers, no laws or agreement or rule except the ‘Golden Rule,’ and every man did what seemed right in his own eyes.”
Fugitives were always in danger of recapture. Some were snatched by professional slave hunters from their homes or places of work in New York, Boston, and elsewhere, and shipped back south in chains, while many conductors and stationmasters were prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Law. Conductors caught below the Mason-Dixon line could expect no mercy. Calvin Fairbank, a divinity student from New York, was arrested for transporting a fugitive family out of Kentucky, where he served thirteen years at hard labor in the state penitentiary and suffered regular flogging. Seth Concklin, another New Yorker, was murdered after his capture with a family of freedom seekers in Indiana, and his body tossed in the Ohio River.
No one knows the total number of fugitives who were helped by the Underground Railroad. However, based on various local estimates, it is possible that somewhere between seventy-five thousand and a hundred thousand freedom seekers may have passed through its stations in the six decades before the Civil War. That was only a small percentage of the total number who attempted to escape. Most were caught and returned to slavery. Those who did succeed were a small proportion of the four million men and women who were enslaved in the United States at the start of the Civil War.
Apart from the thousands of lives saved from slavery, the Underground’s greatest achievement may have been its creation of a truly free zone of interracial activity, where African Americans not only directed complex logistical and financial operations, but also supervised networks that included white men and women who were accorded no special status because of their color. If the long, disheartening history of slavery showed white Americans at their worst, the history of the Underground Railroad reveals people—white and black alike—at their bravest and most self-sacrificing best, as an enduring model of interracial collaboration for our own time, and for times to come.
—Fergus M. Bordewich, historian and author
Magnolia Plantation on the Cane River, LA; "They worked me all de day, Widout one cent of pay; So I took my flight in de middle ob de night, When de moon am gone away." - chorus of Geo. W. Clark Liberty Song

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Decision to Leave
Magnolia Plantation on the Cane River, Louisiana
2013
chromogenic color print
25 1/4 x 36 1/4

Wading Pior to Blackness

 Jeanine Michna-Bales
Wading Prior to Blackness
Grant Parish, Louisiana
2014
chromogenic color print
17 1/4 x 24 3/4

Hidden Passage

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Hidden Passage
Mammoth Cave, Barren County, Kentucky
2014
chromogenic color print
25 1/4 x 36 1/4

Hunters Bottom

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Eagle Hollow from Hunter’s Bottom
Just across the Ohio River, Indiana
2014
chromogenic color print
25 1/4 x 36 1/4

On the Way to Hicklin House Station

Jeanine Michna-Bales
On the Way to the Hicklin House Station
San Jacinto, Indiana
2013
chromogenic color print
17 1/4 x 24 3/4

Look for the Grey Barn Out Back

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Look for the Gray Barn Out Back
Joshua Eliason Jr. barnyards and farmhouse, with a tunnel leading underneath the road to another station, Centerville, Indiana
2013
chromogenic color print
25 1/4 x 36 1/4

Liberty to the Fugitive Captive

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Liberty to the Fugitive Captive
Waiting for the all clear to head to the Captain John Lowry
Station, Lodi Plains Cemetery, Nutting’s Corner, Michigan
2014
chromogenic color print
25 1/4 x 36 1/4

Within Reach

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Within Reach
Crossing the St. Clair River to Canada just south of Port Huron, Michigan
2014
chromogenic color print
25 1/4 x 36 1/4