Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

Last updated on October 13, 2021


Mennello Museum of American Art opens Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad
Orlando, FL - November 19, 2021

They left during the middle of the night—often carrying little more than the knowledge that moss grows on the north side of trees. An estimated 100,000 slaves between 1830 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 chose to embark on this journey in search of freedom. They moved in constant fear of being killed or recaptured, returned, and beaten as an example of what would happen to others who might choose to run. Under the cover of darkness, “fugitives” traveled roughly twenty miles each night traversing rugged terrain while enduring all the hardships that Mother Nature could bring to bear. Occasionally, they were guided from one secret, safe location to the next by an ever-changing, clandestine group known as the Underground Railroad. Many consider the Underground Railroad to be the first great freedom movement in the Americas and the first time when people of different races and faiths worked together in harmony for freedom and justice. Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad opens November 19, 2021 at Mennello Museum of American Art.

Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales has spent more than a decade meticulously researching “fugitive” slaves and the ways they escaped to freedom. While the unnumbered routes of the Underground Railroad encompassed countless square miles, the path Michna-Bales documented encompasses roughly 2,000 miles and is based off of actual sites, cities, and places that freedom-seekers passed through during their journey.

Shannon Fitzgerald, Executive Director states: “We are moved to share Michna-Bales' photographs that are stunning, hauntingly beautiful, and impart a deep gravitas in a thoughtful reflection on a painful part of our American history. The narrative from darkness to light on a path across the American landscape to architectural sites is powerfully guided by spirituals, historic figures, and lived experiences that were encouraging and inspired.”

Whether they were slaves trying to escape or free blacks and whites trying to help, both sides risked everything for the cause of freedom. From the cotton plantations south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, all the way north to the Canadian border, this series of photographs by Michna-Bales helps us imagine what the long road to freedom may have looked like as seen through the eyes of one of those who made this epic journey.

While many books have been written on the subject, there is very little visual documentation of the Underground Railroad because of its secretive nature. Today, as America becomes more and more diverse, Michna-Bales believes that an understanding of the experience—and those who lived through it—is more relevant than ever. The Underground Railroad united people from different races, genders, social levels, religions, and regions in a common and worthwhile cause. It was the first civil rights movement within America. Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad encourages visitors to learn more, ask questions, and open a dialogue on the subject, and in the end, provide a better understanding of our origins.

This exhibition features beautifully dramatic color photographs, ephemera, and narratives that together tell the story of the Underground Railroad. The artist Jeanine Michna-Bales worked with Princeton Architectural Press on a beautiful publication accompanying the exhibition. It includes a photographic essay, contextual essays, text and a diverse sampling of related ephemera. It is available for purchase at the museum.

This exhibition was organized by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad Images & Credits

Exhibition: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad
Host Organization: Mennello Museum of American Art
Runs: November 19, 2021 – January 9, 2021
Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Sunday 12 - 4:30 p.m.
Free Family Fun Day: Second Sundays 12:00 - 2:30 p.m
Location: 900 East Princeton Street
Orlando, FL 32803
Admission: $5 or free for members
Contact: 407.246.4278,

About ExhibitsUSA
This exhibition is toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA sends more than twenty-five exhibitions on tour to over 100 small- and mid-sized communities every year. These exhibitions create access to an array of arts and humanities experiences, nurture the understanding of diverse cultures and art forms, and encourage the expanding depth and breadth of cultural life in local communities. For more about ExhibitsUSA, email or visit

About Mid-America Arts Alliance
Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) strengthens and supports artists, cultural organizations, and communities throughout our region and beyond. We achieve this primarily through our national traveling exhibition programs, innovative leadership development, and strategic grant making. We are especially committed to enriching the cultural life of historically underserved communities by providing high quality, meaningful, and accessible arts and culture programs and services. We believe in more art for more people. Additional information about M-AAA is available at


Image Credit: Jeanine Michna-Bales, Look for the Grey Barn Out Back,Station with a Tunnel Leading to Another Conductor’s House, 2013, Digital C-print, 32 inches x 43 inches, courtesy the artist.

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