There are many myths about the Underground Railroad. That it was highly organized — it was not. Numerous stories about secret passageways, trapdoors — some are unsubstantiated. In fact, the network itself ebbed and flowed, with some branches going dormant for years at a time.
A project by Jeanine Michna-Bales “Through Darkness to Light” seeks to illuminate one aspect of the journey: what it would have been like to walk in the shoes of escaped slaves trickling north. For two and a half years, she photographed in the dead of night, moving through the woods and outskirts of towns where slaves may have tread. The resulting work shows some of the most beautiful landscapes in America, from the swamps of central Mississippi to the lucid St. Clair River at the edge of Canada — tainted by the underlying fear of encountering a slave catcher at any moment.
The business of head hunting was very profitable, since slave owners were inclined to protect the “investment” they had made in a slave, which cost an average of $35,000 in 1850, according to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. There were also slave patrols, whose members would be on the lookout for a slave who was off plantation at any time.
Along the way, Michna-Bales photographed key stations of the Underground Railroad. The Beacon Tree was one of the rare landmarks in which the landscape was physically altered to be recognizable to escaped slaves. Liberetta Lerich recalled as a child witnessing her parents — she later learned they were abolitionists — and neighbors using three yoke of oxen to uproot this cedar to replant it on the top of a hill and make it visible from far away.
Although many of the stories surrounding the Underground Railroad seem to be a distant part of America’s history, the theme of racial inequality in America reverberates. According to a Washington Post investigation, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, unarmed black men are seven times more likely than white men to be killed by police gunfire.
Despite being in full swing of an election cycle, the issue has been buried under other topics like immigration reform and the refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe. “It’s interesting because I feel like our country goes through cycles of discussing things and then shoving it under the rug … but people are still dealing with these issues,” Michna-Bales said.
Still, she hopes that her project can be a pathway to rejuvenating the conversation about race relations in America. Standing in Emancipation Hall on December 9 to note the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, President Obama acknowledged that there was still progress to be made. “Remember that our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others,” he said.
The photos are currently on view at Open Society Foundations in New York as part of the exhibition “Moving Walls 23: Journeys” through Sept. 9, 2016. The book “Through Darkness to Light: Seeking Freedom on the Underground Railroad,” will be released by Princeton Architectural Press in February 2017.