Almost two decades after its opening, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center wants to infuse its historical narrative with new voices.
To assist in this effort, the Freedom Center has welcomed Trudy Gaba, Social Justice Curator, and Katie Stockdale, Exhibit Content Developer. The women note that they plan to present a fresh perspective while keeping it rooted in fact, reality and light.
Gaba, who hails from Virginia, has ties to many of the stories shared at the Freedom Center. An art historian with a particular interest in visual culture, she cherishes the opportunity to trace the meaningful connections from her past in Virginia to her present home in Cincinnati. Before joining the Freedom Center, Gaba worked with South Asian art, Islamic art, and antiquities at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
“I have a passion for telling stories from marginalized, underrepresented groups,” she says. “I try to give a platform to cultures you don’t historically see in Western institutions.”
Originally from Florida, Stockdale began her museum career in Georgia. Her goal was to recenter marginalized groups without any voice or view in the historical narrative. She started a curation of social justice that became a nine-exhibit series focused on African American history in the South, particularly in the community where she lived.
“That’s when I knew this was the work I wanted to keep doing,” says Stockdale. When she found the Freedom Center, it was the perfect fit.
Since its establishment in 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has witnessed many worldwide social changes. How society approaches and examines the history of those changes, Gaba notes, is constantly in flux.
“Institutions like the Freedom Center are hubs for this discourse, so it’s vital that we reflect the current issues that are happening outside our doors and continue to be a center for social change and for having these tough conversations,” she says. “Doing so within our local communities can produce a ripple effect nationally and globally.”
Stockdale says she has always been obsessed with storytelling. She believes it is one of the best ways we, as humans, can share and process history.
“I’m trying to bring to the Freedom Center those stories that were overlooked, not heard or not brought to light in previous histories,” she says.
The two women collaborate daily, swapping ideas and developing content as they figure out the focus of the various galleries.
“We are a team. We dream together. We push each other. And we talk about the things that are uncomfortable to talk about,” says Gaba. “We have that open-door policy where if something excites one of us, we run to the other’s office and say, ‘Hey, look at this image I found.’ Or ‘Look at this book I pulled.’ We think about how we can weave in these threads of connection and meaning to ground our approach and interpretation.”
Both women maintain that pain can exist alongside joy; therefore, they want to amplify resistance stories from that perspective.
“Resistance stories don’t have to just be about struggle,” says Gaba. “Resistance can show up in a multitude of ways. We’re not keen on showing how Cincinnatians and Black Cincinnatians have resisted, but how it can be rooted in joy, community, connection and family, not just in struggle and pain.”
Stockdale points out that there are also many stories of beauty in which artists who studied abroad returned home to craft music and poetry that helped create the American community/cultural landscape.
“That’s important to talk about because it’s not the story that usually gets the headlines, but it’s still part of the real story,” says Stockdale. She emphasizes that from now on, the Freedom Center’s purpose is to broaden the narrative.
“It’s letting people in who have been kept out, and that doesn’t mean shoving out people who were already there,” says Stockdale. “It’s just widening the lens and letting in more voices. It’s about building a longer table.”
To learn more about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, visit freedomcenter.org.