FLUSHING - In the 21st century, it's difficult to imagine being held against your will thousands of miles from your home, forced to labor for others' benefit.
But to begin to comprehend what it meant to be a slave in pre-Civil War America, one only needs to visit the Underground Railroad Museum at 121 High St., Flushing, where curator John Mattox guides visitors back through the ages.
Mattox and his late wife Rosalind founded the museum in 1993 in hopes of preserving the past for future generations. Mattox welcomes all patrons - black or white - with equal enthusiasm, eager to learn about them and to share his knowledge of slavery and the Underground Railroad. His goal is to demonstrate what we all have in common today and to prompt young people to seek additional awareness and wisdom.
Photos by Jennifer Compston-Strough
John Mattox, curator of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, poses for a photo among some of the historical items on exhibit.
Photos by Jennifer Compston-Strough
Most families of slaves would have lived in a single room cabin similar to the one recreated at the museum. All of their activities — meals, sleeping and socializing — would have taken place in such a small space.
"It's not about blame, it's about understanding," Mattox often says of the museum's mission.
The museum is open by appointment only, but Mattox is almost always available and quick to respond when visitors call 740-968-2080 or 740-968-6113 to arrange a tour.
Upon their arrival, they can view collections of books and documents related to the slave trade, as well as artifacts and displays that demonstrate how people lived and were held in bondage prior to the Civil War. There is no admission fee for the museum, but patrons' donations are appreciated and put to good use preserving and expanding its collections.
Mattox also enjoys sharing stories about how slaves communicated with one another, including through coded messages in their songs.
He is quick to talk about particular runaways who escaped - and were returned to - their masters in the local region.
He also reveals information about Quakers and other white residents of the Ohio Valley who championed the abolitionist cause and helped slaves find their way to freedom.
"We have a lot to offer," Mattox said regarding the wealth of information available at the facility and throughout the entire area.
Mattox, a retired insurance agent and U.S. Air Force veteran, studied psychology and sociology at Houston Tillitson College in Austin, Texas. He also holds an honorary doctor of public service degree from Ohio University.
In addition to operating the museum, Mattox also provides the Traveling Trunk program upon request for schools, Scout groups, civic organizations and others who want to learn more about slavery and the Underground Railroad. His Traveling Trunk is essentially a mini-museum that he can take wherever he goes. It contains a variety of "hands-on" objects, such as shackles used to restrain slaves, as well as books, memorabilia and more.
Mattox also leads Underground Railroad Tours to various sites around the Ohio Valley. These four- to five-hour trips may include stops at the site of a former slave auction block and at Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling, a Quaker home in Martins Ferry where runaways sought shelter and the Friends Yearly Meeting House at Mount Pleasant. Other possible stops feature sites in Smithfield, Cadiz, Hopedale, New Athens, Flushing, Morristown, Barnesville and St. Clairsville.