The Underground Railroad, with its coded language and network of secret passes and safe houses, is an amazing story of everyday people defying the law in the name of justice. The escaping slaves risked everything to secure their freedom and a better life, traveling through unfamiliar country at night in order to reach the next safe house, hopefully always one step or more ahead of the slave catchers. Names such as Harriet Tubman and Levi Coffin are familiar to Americans as conductors on the path to freedom, but less familiar are the actual places where the soon-to-be free men and women were safeguarded on the journey. William Earle Williams has spent more than 25 years photographing the surviving Underground Railroad sites; Uncovering the Path to Freedom: Photographs of Underground Railroad Sites by William Earle Williams, an exhibition of his amazing work, opens with a free public reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, February 19, at the Sheldon (3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.thesheldon.org). Williams' images reveal drawing rooms that are mundane in their old-fashionedness and rough-hewn basements that must have been a welcome, if Spartan, sanctuary. Williams' carefully composed photos penetrate this guise of the everyday to reveal these locations' true purpose in luminous black and white. These basements and parlors, their secrets now well known, seem shrines to the nobility of their long-ago passengers, silent but not still with a freedom that was obtained through boldness and cunning. Uncovering the Path to Freedom remains on display through Saturday, May 15; the gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday.
Tuesdays-Saturdays. Starts: Feb. 19. Continues through May 15, 2010