Originally published June 4, 2009 at 10 a.m., updated June 5, 2009 at 10:11 a.m.
Slavery was legal in America in all of the original 13 colonies. We'll explore the history of the Underground Railroad in helping slaves find freedom, and how the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center continues to work on human slavery in the modern world.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Sometimes the twists and turns we take in life don't seem to make a lot of sense until we step back, take a long look and say, oh, yeah. That's the sense my guest, Donald Murphy expresses, when he says he's been led to his present position as the CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His diverse background includes a graduate degree in physiology at UCSD, work at the Salk Institute, then a stint as a park ranger, and then working up through the ranks of the National Park Service to become the agency's deputy director, and all through that writing and publishing poems. Now, the twists and turns that have led Donald Murphy to head the Underground Railroad Museum have also led him back to UCSD to be honored as UCSD Alumnus of the year. Donald Murphy, welcome to These Day and congratulations.
DONALD MURPHY (CEO, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center): Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm glad to be back in San Diego. I love this city.
CAVANAUGH: Now you really had a hard time deciding what you wanted to be when you grew up.
MURPHY: I guess that's one way of looking at it. I certainly loved the sciences which is what drew me to the University of California at San Diego. I mean, I had people advise me that this was the best up-and-coming school for the biological sciences after having done my first two years at the University of Southern California, so I transferred here for the sciences and biology because I just absolutely loved it. So in that sense, you know, I didn't have any trouble finding out what I loved and following my heart in that regard but then when it came to a career and what I was going to do with the rest of my life that became the more challenging choice. And I just decided to follow my heart. I mean, I literally felt that my heart was attached to a star pulling me in another direction. I mean, that's literally the way I felt. And I guess some people characterize it as a calling or…
MURPHY: …that sort of thing.
CAVANAUGH: And you see a connection between your biology studies and being a park ranger.
MURPHY: Well, absolutely. Interestingly enough, when I came to UC San Diego, the professors were debating whether or not they were going to teach, quote, whole biology or cellular and molecular biology and which was the most efficacious in helping young people make a difference in the world? And I have to say that, you know, the molecular and cellular biology approach really helped in my career as a ranger because much of the work in ecology and conservation, land preservation, is directly related to fundamental biological systems. And so I found myself very conversant on a very basic level when it came to conversations about ecology, ecosystems, and whole system biology as well.
CAVANAUGH: And that led you through the ranks of the National Park Service to become its deputy director.
CAVANAUGH: And that leads to your present job…
CAVANAUGH: …at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. And one of your goals, I know, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is to make sure that everyone remembers the history of the underground railroad. So why don't you give us a nutshell, a reminder of why this is such an important part of our national history.
MURPHY: Well, during the time of the underground railroad, which, if you want to date it from a period would be around 1832 when it first developed. It was during the time this was a very young nation, struggling to make sure that everyone was free, and liberty, of course, was the fundamental principle upon which the nation was based. And yet, at the same time, it's characteristic of humanity, the irony of ironies, the nation enslaved millions of Africans at the same time. But there were people of conscience and of goodwill, people that we believe exhibited courage, cooperation and perseverance, blacks and whites, who banded together to continue the struggle for freedom to make sure that those enslaved Africans could also enjoy freedoms as well. And the story we tell is really one about people of diverse backgrounds coming together around a principle, the fundamental principle of liberty, and working to see that this country really did live out the true meaning of its creed, that all people were created equal and deserved freedom. It's a very important part of American history that isn't often told and our 160,000 square foot museum tells that story, and not just that story but leads on up to the civil rights movement as well and then also focuses on the continuing problem of contemporary slavery in the world today.
CAVANAUGH: And as I understand it, the underground railroad was the network of safe houses and paths and guided escape routes…
CAVANAUGH: …that slaves used to come up from the south to free states in the north. And I've always wondered why they called it a railroad.
MURPHY: Well, it's interesting. They called it a railroad simply because it was a path that people took which – and they called it, of course, underground because it was clandestine, and it was a name, really, that wasn't used during the time at all that slaves were escaping. It was a name that was coined many years later, and there's still people that have all sorts of misconceptions about it and most of the history of the underground railroad is one that's told by word of mouth but there are scholars that work very, very hard at documenting even the word of mouth stories and the places that served as way stations along the underground railroad as well. And the escape routes weren't simply from the south to the north; many of the routes went to the south, particularly to Fort Mose in Florida, which was in Spanish territory at the time, and then also to the southwest and on into Mexico, as well, there were routes. And then worldwide, don't forget that slavery was a problem worldwide, in the Caribbean and in South America, and there were also escape routes in cities that were established, free cities, that were established by escaping slaves during – enslaved Africans, during that period as well.
CAVANAUGH: And when did what we refer to now as the underground railroad, when did that really get started?
MURPHY: Well, again, I would say the history of it started around 1832 and variously through word of mouth and various accounts, there came to be known the concept of the underground railroad so, you know, the early to mid-1800s was when the phrase was coined and became popularized.
CAVANAUGH: Does anybody know – As you say, a lot of research is still being done on this. Does anybody know about how many people were freed using this network of escape routes?
MURPHY: Well, yeah, I mean, that's what's very difficult to know. And let me just tell you, in answering your question, kind of give you a historical perspective. I mean, this clandestine path would never have worked if people talked about it or if it was something that was chronicled or people kept records of. And so that makes the history, you know, very difficult, including the numbers of people. For example, it's often said that Harriet Tubman ferried, you know, hundreds if not thousands of escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Well, you know, that's more myth than it is fact because, you know, no records were kept at all but, certainly, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans, if not millions, escaped during that period. But it leads me to pause for a moment because when you ask the question about how many slaves, enslaved Africans, escaped, the question also comes up, well, why didn't more people escape? And young people, particularly, that visit the museum say, well, I would've escaped. I would've never, you know, allowed myself to be enslaved. But if you were an enslaved African, many had families and if they escaped, those families were left behind and many of them were either sold or punished severely, so there were repercussions and consequences of wanting to escape, and some of them were quite dire, and they weren't always ones that the individual escaping slave had to suffer; their families would have to suffer. And so they had to make decisions about whether or not they wanted their family members to suffer as well. Very difficult decisions, and that's why it was such an egregious institution.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Donald Murphy. He is being honored as UCSD Alumnus of the Year, and, as you hear, he is CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. And you bring up the name Harriet Tubman. I think most of us are familiar with Harriet Tubman but that's just about the only name we are familiar with when it comes to any kind of recitation of the underground railroad. Does your Freedom Center museum document other people whose work on this has been discovered?
MURPHY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, others that toiled on the underground railroad, people like John Parker and John Rankin, they lived about thirty miles upriver from Cincinnati, Ohio, where we're located. Both of their homes are on the National Register of Historic Places and they're landmarks, national historic landmarks. John Parker was a former enslaved African who bought his freedom at age eighteen and became a blacksmith and was one of the first African-Americans to patent – have his own patents as a blacksmith, and he ferried escaping Africans across the Ohio River and then took them up to John Rankin's home, which was on a high bluff above the Ohio River and he was – that was the first way station along the way. And the two of them – Rankin was a Presbyterian minister, and the two of them worked together. And also right on the Ohio River, in that area, is where "Uncle Tom's Cabin" played out so Harriet Beecher Stowe was from that area, her home is memorialized there. We tell her story there as well. We tell the story of Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was a newspaper publisher who was gunned down in the doorway of his printing office as a result of his abolitionist activities. So there are many heroes and heroines that are unknown that we tell the story of at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
CAVANAUGH: And the location of it in Cincinnati on the Ohio River. The Ohio River played a very important line of demarcation…
CAVANAUGH: …back in the nineteenth century.
MURPHY: Yeah, it was the demarcation of, you know, of slave and free. I mean, northern Kentucky, slave state, and then southern Ohio, it was just a tremendous highway, if you will, and symbol of slavery and freedom. And we sit right there on the banks of the Ohio River, historically in a very active place. And the other historical part that's sort of a digression is the Roebling Bridge is right out in front of our Freedom Center as well, which was the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge. And so that's where we are, where we sit historically, is right in that spot and it's a beautiful spot but it's also full of a very dark part of the history of this country as well, and a triumphant part, too, because so many people crossed that river to freedom.
CAVANAUGH: And what role did the underground railroad play in ending slavery in the U.S.?
MURPHY: Well, I think the most important role that the underground railroad played is that in the northeast, in particular, there were publications and, of course, Frederick Douglass was one of the champions and spokespersons for the abolitionist movement. It kept in the consciousness of America that this – that people were enslaved in the land of the free. So think about how, during the civil rights movement, when television showed the dogs and the fire hoses on people who were demonstrating for civil rights, well, in the same way during the abolitionist movement the only media we really had were newspapers and then oratory and speeches that were given, not just nationally but worldwide, for the purpose of raising the consciousness of people and getting them to understand that these egregious acts were happening right in their own backyard. And once that started to permeate the American consciousness, then slavery was doomed.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know one of the things that you're very, very involved in in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is ending modern day slavery.
CAVANAUGH: How big a problem is that?
MURPHY: Well, by some estimates there are twenty-seven million enslaved people in the world today and the United States State Department, you know, has a definition of slavery which involves being held against your will with little hope for escape and exploited for monetary purposes, that's loosely the definition. And there are people that are involved in sex trafficking, of course, young children that are abducted to work in brick kilns in India and in China, domestic workers right here in this country who are enslaved, some right in neighborhoods such as the neighborhoods here in San Diego. You'd be surprised. And one of the things we do at the Freedom Center is provide training for people in the social services and in law enforcement and in the legal profession so that they can recognize when they see trafficking in human beings. It's analogous to the situation that we had twenty years ago when domestic violence was rampant but nobody would admit it. And it wasn't until we started having public service announcements and showing people how to recognize domestic violence that people said, yes, this is going on and it's happening right next door. And it's the same with contemporary slavery. Many times, it's happening right in your own neighborhoods, particularly in trafficking in teenagers. Many of these teenage girls are not paid, they are held against their will with threats of violence from their pimps, and law enforcement is just beginning to recognize this. And, thankfully, the U.S. government established a office to combat trafficking in human persons, passed a law which is very stringent which gives a lot of authority to the ambassador of that office to work towards combating trafficking in human persons in the United States and worldwide.
CAVANAUGH: And how does the Freedom Center actually get involved in this? Do you hold seminars to…
CAVANAUGH: …show law enforcement what they should be looking for? Or…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, you do?
MURPHY: Yes. We hold training seminars both at the Freedom Center and then we go out into the broader community and hold those seminars. We developed an exhibit called "Invisible", which has traveled throughout the nation and internationally to U.N. meetings. And these exhibits are for the purpose of raising the consciousness of people of the existence of trafficking in persons, and we've just got a $250,000.00 donation to refurbish that exhibit and we'll be improving it and traveling it throughout the world, too. And this is where most of our solicitation for donations come in. We use those funds then to develop programs that generate more awareness about this and also help us with these seminars, the training programs that we put on as well because it's our purpose, working with our other non-government organization partners, other NGOs, to eliminate slavery in the world. And it's in its most egregious form that it's ever been in the world because right now a slave's value is estimated to be right around ninety dollars and you contrast that with the three hundred to four thousand dollars value in the historical slavery in this nation and even in ancient times. There's almost no value placed on the life of an enslaved person. They're enslaved and then they're simply discarded. They work in agricultural fields. Again, they work as prostitutes, they work as slave child labor, and if – once they can't work anymore, they're simply discarded because there's no value placed on human life, and it's very much involved in the criminal underworld right now.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Donald Murphy, in addition to being the CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which we've been talking about, you're also UCSD Alumnus of the Year…
MURPHY: That's right.
CAVANAUGH: …and I know that you're very involved in education and how important education can be. You're educating around the country and around the world about modern day slavery. What role does education play in problems like slavery today?
MURPHY: Well, I think it plays the most important role. In fact, we think of ourselves less of a museum and more of an educational institution. We provide what we call e-learning or digital learning nationwide to school children, particularly fifth and eighth graders because that's where the curriculum focuses on the Civil War and slavery and abolitionism. And so we take all of our educational material and, at the Freedom Center, we digitize that material. We make it available to educational institutions so teachers can upload it onto their secure servers and then download it later and integrate it into their curriculum. We provide teacher in-service training, teacher workshops as well, both on contemporary slavery and historical slavery as well, so people can continue to be educated. Our Jewish friends, of course, have the slogan related to the Holocaust, "Never Again". Well, "Never Again" won't be a reality if people aren't educated, if it's not kept in the consciousness of people. We have young people come through I can't tell you how visceral they are affected. One young man, nine years old, came through and he said, I can't believe that we selled—and he used that term, he said selled—selled other people. And he went on to say that he couldn't understand how America could've gotten so far off course from what it should've been doing. It was the most thought provoking testimonial I've ever seen in my life and you knew that that young man was going to go out and make a difference in the world and live his life differently because of the education he received from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It makes – education makes all the difference in the world.
CAVANAUGH: I have to change gears for just a…
CAVANAUGH: …in our closing minutes of our conversation because I know you have a long career working for both California Park Service…
CAVANAUGH: …and the National Park Service.
CAVANAUGH: And, you know, we've had the bad news lately here in California that Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing closing…
CAVANAUGH: …80% of California's parks because of the state budget crisis.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering what you think about that?
MURPHY: Well, I think it's a tragedy, I mean, and it's unfortunate because during my tenure the state had a ten billion dollar budget – the national – the state parks had a ten million dollar budget deficit and we worked very hard to restructure state parks so that we wouldn't have to close any parks. And at that time, and this was in 1992, you know, we were saying that we couldn't do business as usual, we needed to change the paradigm and we needed to look at a new model. You know, and, frankly, no one would listen and I think you're hearing it politically now that there just has not been the will to make the fundamental changes systemically that are necessary in our budget system in order to support what we do in the state of California. And state parks themselves were developed by citizens; it was a citizens' idea, it wasn't a government idea. It rose up from the people. And I think a new model has to be found for supporting our state parks that's maybe a government public-private partnership. I think we don't need to see parks always at the mercy of poor management by government officials because the parks belong to the people and their value really transcends the monetary economic value that's often, you know, ascribed to a program to determine whether or not it should be funded. And I think there's another model out there that's some kind of public-private partnership that would allow us to continue to support our parks.
CAVANAUGH: If you can, briefly, tell us what's going to happen if they shut down the parks?
MURPHY: Well, you know, it's a silly notion because there are not – only at some of the parks are there entrances that you can actually shut down and not allow people in or close off campgrounds and things like that because people can still access these lands. I mean, the worst case scenario is that people will be able to access these lands and that they won't be protected, they won't be maintained, and the tremendous investment that we have made will be lost. And so it's pennywise and pound foolish, ultimately, to say that you're going to close the parks and somehow that's going to save you money. In the long run, it's going to cost you even more money because you will be losing your investment and jeopardizing the investment that you have made over, literally, a century of time. And so there really needs to be a new way of looking at this and I really hope the citizens of the state, those good people of goodwill that formed the State Parks System to begin with, people in the Sempervirens fund, people with the State Parks Foundation, and others, private groups, will band together and figure out a way to take state parks back, put them in the hands of the people and let the people support them.
CAVANAUGH: And just really quickly at the end, when are you honored, actually, as the UCSD Alumnus of the Year?
MURPHY: Well, it's going to be Saturday evening from six to nine at the Del Mar Marriott. I really feel humbled by this. I'm not sure why they chose me but I'm happy to be here and to talk about the university. UC San Diego is probably one of the greatest assets that this state has. It's just a wonderful institution and its education served me well.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to say, Donald Murphy, what a remarkable career you've had and are having as CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
MURPHY: All right. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And if you want more information about the UCSD Alumnus event, you can go to our website, kpbs.org/thesedays.