Out of the Shadows
Saving the unspeakable
By Elissa Sonnenberg | From Preservation | July/August 2004
CINCINNATI—One object, above all, may haunt visitors' dreams after they emerge from the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: a two-story slave pen dating to 1830. Built in Mason County, northern Kentucky, the log structure was used to imprison slaves awaiting shipment to Mississippi and the West. The provocative display, likened to the boxcar exhibit in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is "a very powerful representation of slavery," says Spencer Crew, head of the Freedom Center. "It also illustrates why others who saw what was happening got involved with the Underground Railroad."
For nearly a century, the "slave jail," as it was known in the close-knit, rural community, lay hidden from view inside a barn built around it in the early 1900s. With the chinking knocked out for ventilation and the second floor removed, the slave pen was used as a place to cure tobacco. When Ray Evers, a retired contractor from Cincinnati, bought the property in 1976, "the bars were on the windows and the shackles were in there," he says. Some local farm hands who knew of its dark history refused even to enter the dilapidated structure. Evers stored farm equipment in the space between the barn and the enclosed pen until 1998, when he learned about the Freedom Center project. "They seemed to be the logical people to preserve it," says Evers.
So few slave pens remain that Carl Westmoreland, senior adviser and curator at the Freedom Center, was skeptical about Evers' claim. "When I stepped through the doors of that barn, I cried," says Westmoreland, the great-grandson of a slave blacksmith. "Millions of us limped through places like that."
But the discovery was only the beginning of the preservation process. Although Evers wanted the slave pen removed, local historians maintained that it should remain where it had been constructed. Westmoreland worked with them to find the best way to preserve the pen, which would not likely survive another decade in the leaky barn. In exchange for three metal-clad sheds, Evers donated the structure to the Freedom Center, which dismantled it log by log for reconstruction inside the museum—at a cost of $2 million. Moving the slave pen prevented further deterioration and brought it out of hiding. "Our purpose has been to honor it," says Westmoreland, a former trustee of the National Trust.
Male slaves were most likely held on the second floor, shackled to a central joist that ran the 30-foot length of the structure, while the female slaves stayed on the first floor. As visitors walk through the reconstructed pen and touch its walls and bars, they will gain a sense of the brutal realities of slavery. "We want to preserve the ugly: the sweat and the pain," says Westmoreland. "There is a power that comes with this. It speaks for itself."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.