New additions to the Heinz History Center exhibit From Slavery to Freedom deepen our insight into what it took for an enslaved person to get free. A food display and digital safehouses are some of the latest features in the award-winning exhibit.
The first half of the expanded display explores food and plants that fleeing slaves would have used in their everyday lives. Sweet potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts and okra form colorful colonies against one wall, while a display of illustrated wild plants teaches that runaways had to be careful about their dietary choices — they could eat pokeweed, for example, only if it were cooked.
Curator Samuel Black hopes the information will help people appreciate the knowledge and skill required for a successful getaway in those pre-Civil War years.
"America was largely still a wilderness" at the time, says Black. "It's hard to think about that today, because everything's been taken over with concrete. If you were traveling from southern Virginia at that time, you were not on Interstate 79 or Interstate 77. You didn't have the aid of streetlights. It was pitch dark. Those are the things that I wanted people to fully realize: If you ran out of food that you brought with you, how do you survive?"
The display also visits the Underground Railroad's safehouses, recreated digitally on touch-screen monitors. Visitors can scroll 360 degrees around the houses, examining places like the Monongahela House, a former Downtown hotel, and items like a printing press and the first black newspaper it produced. They can also watch animated scenes of slave-catchers banging on the door of Dr. Francis LeMoyne, a Washington, Pa.-based abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln stepping onto the Monongahela House's balcony to address the crowds below.
Black says presenting the information this way killed two birds with one stone.
"My challenge was, how do I tell this story to a [contemporary] audience when we don't have any artifacts related to it? We don't have some Underground Railroad operative's lantern or anything like that. What I came up with, especially [for] students, is [using] their technology to tell this story, instead of knocking our heads against the wall, trying to find artifacts or reproductions that they may not relate to. But they should definitely relate to a touch-screen."