The journey is long and shrouded in darkness.

It's too dangerous to travel by day, especially with barking dogs on your trail.

Curator Kathe Hambrick doesn't want you to simply look at Jeanine Michna-Bales' photos in the West Baton Rouge Museum's show, "Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad." She wants to you take a moment to live through them.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses scattered throughout the country during the 19th century. Enslaved African Americans used these routes to escape into free states, Canada and Nova Scotia.

They were aided by abolitionists and other allies who were sympathetic to their cause.

Michna-Bales spent more than a decade photographing landmarks and landscapes along an Underground Railroad route from the Natchitoches area to Lake Huron in Canada. The route is one of many, but it's representative of what thousands of slaves endured to win their freedom.

And though the terrain constantly changes, darkness offers the biggest challenge in Michna-Bales' photos.

"When you walk in, you'll see that these photographs were all taken in the dark, but they had to be taken this way because the freedom seekers could only travel in the dark," Hambrick said. "They were guided by the North Star and Big Dipper. But what did they do on cloudy nights? Jeanine Michna-Bales took these photos in an artistic way, but she also makes us think."

This is when the journey becomes personal.

"When people look at these photographs, they tend to think about what happened in the third person," Hambrick said. "But I want you to think about it in the first person. What would you do? Would you keep going? That changes everything."

The photos don't hang in chronological order, but that doesn't hamper Hambrick's quest. She took 150 fifth graders from University Lab School on this journey earlier in the day, starting them off in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.

"I told them that, in this photo, you have to hide in this cave," she said. "Not only that, you are a mother traveling alone with your baby. Your husband was sold to a plantation in Tennessee, and you are trying to get to him so you can escape together."

What do you do? Do you chance waiting for nightfall in the blind darkness of a cave? How far do you have to retreat inside the cave so your captors can't hear your crying baby? Do you even know if your husband is still alive?

Hambrick posed similar questions in front of a photo Michna-Bales took of a cypress swamp in Mississippi and again at a photo of exposed tree roots just past the Ohio River. Freedom seekers would have encountered all of these places.

"Do you keep going?" Hambrick asked again. "In the swamp, there's the danger of water moccasins and alligators. In the tree roots, there might be snakes, spiders or other animals. And you're doing this in the dark. Do you turn around and go back? Or is freedom worth taking the chance?"

Nature's challenges only get worse with the progression of Michna-Bales' photos. A nighttime climb in Tennessee's mountainous terrain poses its own set of dangers, and floodwaters could sweep you away if you try crossing the Ohio River at the wrong time of year.

Hambrick has enhanced the exhibit with items from the West Baton Rouge Museum's collection, including reproduction iron slave collars and authentic slave shackles. 

One wall area is filled with Louisiana newspaper ads offering rewards for runaway slaves.

In the center of the gallery is a box made of wood from a slave cabin reproduced to fit the exact specifications of one built by Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia, who used the box to ship himself to Philadelphia.

"But even when they reached free states, the freedom seekers knew they weren't completely safe because they could be captured by bounty hunters and brought back," Hambrick said. "That's why they had to cross into Canada. The bounty hunters couldn't cross over there."

Michna-Bales' photos eventually lead to freedom at Lake Huron in Canada. Some estimates suggest that by 1850, some 100,000 people escaped the slave states through the Underground Railroad.

"These were people who worked all of their lives but never got paid for it," Hambrick said. "They were treated as property, so, freedom meant everything to them, so much that they would take the chance and keep going forward." 


'Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad'

A traveling exhibit by the Mid America Arts Alliance

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through May 26.

WHERE: West Baton Rouge Museum, 845 N. Jefferson Ave., Port Allen.

ADMISSION: $4; $2, seniors age 62 and older, students, AAA members and active military members.

INFORMATION: (225) 336-2422 or westbatonrougemuseum.com


Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.