After learning about slavery and the Underground Railroad in the fourth grade, photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales could not get the idea of walking 1,000 miles to freedom out of her mind. So, for 15 years, the Indiana native traveled North America, from Louisiana to the Canadian border, photographing stops along the Underground Railroad.
The result of her years of research and travel is the exhibition “Through Darkness to Light: Seeking Freedom Along the Underground Railroad,” on view at Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Southwest Atlanta through March 31.
The Underground Railroad was an abolitionist network that consisted of numerous clandestine trails, caves, tunnels, safe houses and churches that helped enslaved people reach freedom. The exhibition’s accompanying book of the same title, published by Princeton Architectural Press, is slated for release at the end of this month, and it features maps, quotes and historical information about the Underground Railroad.
“There are not a lot of written records left over from the Underground Railroad, so finding information was very difficult,” Michna-Bales said. “After you cross the Mason-Dixon Line, there are more marked places, but in the South, I had to guess. I tried to photograph plantations that were big enough that freedom seekers could have passed through unnoticed and paths that were commonly traveled at the time.”
Gallery owner and curator Arnika Dawkins discovered Michna-Bales’ work two years ago when Dawkins served as a juror for the Photolucida Competition. And in the time since that first encounter, photos from the collection have been a part of “Moving Walls 23: Journeys” at Open Society Foundations in New York City, and 40 prints will become a part of Duke University’s permanent collection in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. There are 83 total digital chromogenic prints in the series; 15 of them are on display at Arnika Dawkins.
“I was delighted for the deep dive that she did into this work through her research,” Dawkins said. “There were many paths along the Underground Railroad and she took one, which she made up herself. It confounds me that people who were trying to seek a better life for themselves were subjected to such conditions, and that it was better to take that risk than the alternative.”
The path Michna-Bales documented with her camera covers roughly 1,400 miles of actual sites, cities and places that the freedom seekers passed through in their journey, and almost all of the photographs were shot in the middle of the night. She started in Louisiana, then went up through the corners of Alabama and Mississippi, and up into Tennessee and Kentucky. From there, she journeyed through Indiana, Michigan and on into Canada. The exhibition features quotes from the book displayed beneath the photos, which Dawkins purposefully placed close to the floor to evoke the idea of hiding in shrubs and grass.
“It’s not just African-American history, this is shared American history,” Dawkins said. “I think in the political climate that we are in today, things are changing rapidly, not just in the United States, but across the world. Having more conversations about understanding another’s plight is better than becoming isolationists.”
Michna-Bales enlisted her mother, stepfather, brother-in-law and sometimes police escorts to accompany her in taking the photos at 2 and 3 in the morning. She chose sites to photograph based on books, historical papers and oral history from people whose family members’ homes were safe houses.
“I found there was an organization called the Henry County Indiana Female Anti-Slavery Society that collected funds to purchase free labor cotton,” said the artist, who self-funded the project. “They were sewing this cotton into clothing and then they were shipping it to other abolitionists to clothe the freedom seekers as they headed north.”
Michna-Bales ultimately hopes that the photographs will spark conversations about this dark period in the nation’s past as a path to healing.
“I feel like the project chose me more than I chose it, and I think one of the parallels between what’s going on politically now with the Underground Railroad is that you have all of these lines being blurred between people,” she said. “You had all of these people working together and putting their differences aside to change policy in our country. I hope that we can apply that to now and recognize that yes, we are all different, but we are all human.”
“Through Darkness to Light: Seeking Freedom Along the Underground Railroad”
Through March 31. Free. Schedule an appointment to view the photos by visiting adawkinsgallery.com/gallery or calling 404-333-0312. Arnika Dawkins Gallery, 4600 Cascade Road, Atlanta.