Through their historic house, the Rokeby Museum has engaged visitors with the story and significance of the Underground Railroad for decades. However they felt it was impossible to tell the full story of the Underground Railroad and reach a wide audience solely by guided tours. With the goal to shake up the typical Underground Railroad story, the museum developed and installed a permanent exhibit, Free & Safe.
The Free & Safe exhibit brings to life the dozen or more fugitive slaves harbored at Rokeby during their journey to freedom. Two individuals in particular, Simon and Jesse, have the most complete and complementary accounts of their stay at Rokeby – their narratives serve as the focus of the exhibit.
Simon’s story details his escape to the North, which is documented in two long letters that supplied the framework for the exhibit. Simon’s emotions – his agonized decision to run, his terror at being caught, the biting cold and hunger he faced – are presented in changing outdoor scenes.
Jesse lived and worked at Rokeby for at least a year to save $150 to buy his freedom legally. Three letters in the Museum’s collection helped structure a short drama that documents his repeated attempts to buy a manumission paper, and his anguish when he is denied.
Instead of presenting the traditional Underground Railroad story of secret rooms and slave catchers, Rokeby connects visitors with the human experience of the Underground Railroad through personal narratives. Free & Safe bookends Simon’s and Jesse’s accounts by opening with a background on slavery, and closing with the history of abolition. By placing the exhibit within a national context, Rokeby hopes Free & Safe will inspire reflections about contemporary civil rights issues.