Dr. Ashley Jordan: Telling Stories of Courage


We met Dr. Ashley Jordan at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She gave us a mini tour of the building and its three floors of exhibits. The Freedom Center’s exhibits examine America’s history of slavery, as well as modern day slavery. On the third floor balcony, we paused next to the Freedom Center’s Eternal Flame and looked down at the glistening Ohio River.

During our conversation, Dr. Jordan shared many stories of courageous women who have inspired her. She talked about her journey to becoming a curator, the history of the Underground Railroad, and her favorite sheroes.

Interview by Myra Morehart. Photography by Kali Robinson.

Tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming a curator.

My name is Ashley Jordan and I am the curator of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. I recently graduated with my doctorate in United States history from Howard University.

I would say my journey to now is largely attributed to just having strong mentors. I wouldn’t be here without strong female mentors. I did an internship in 2008 at the National Museum of American History Smithsonian. I was a junior and at the time I was a history major, but my thing about history was I didn’t want to teach history; I just wanted to talk about history. I didn’t want to be in the classroom; I just wanted to talk, and my advisor was really instrumental in helping me decide what I could do with a history degree. My concern was like, “What am I going to do with this? I just don’t know about this field,” and I think I did everything to avoid history – I was in interior design, event planning – all because I was avoiding history, but history was the one thing that was really constant in my life as far as an area of strength, even within my grades. My advisor, Dr. Jameson, at Kent State University, was like, “Maybe you should consider public history,” and I was like, “What is public history?” I had never even heard of the word. And he said that basically it’s the study of history that goes beyond the classroom, history that belongs to the public. It’s not just in the classroom, but it’s in the battlefields, it’s in the monuments, it’s historic homes, it’s museums, it’s art, it’s libraries. So I was like, let me get a little bit more into this.


Kent State offered a program called “Washington Program and National Issues.” I applied for the position to get into this program. I got in, thankfully, and then I had to find my own internship. When I applied, Fath Davis Ruffins, who is a renowned curator of African American History and Culture in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian, picked me up and basically it was that internship that changed my life. She helped me formulate what it was that I wanted to do with a history degree. I think for the longest time, I just wanted to be a history major, but she was like, “No, Ashley, there’s all types of history; there’s military history, there’s European history... What is it that you want to do?” And I think from that experience I was able to cultivate my own interests and discover that my passion was African American history. So even now, I don’t think of myself as an educator, but I am an educator, because my exhibits are me acting as an informal educator and I’m teaching and I’m making connections with people that I probably wouldn’t make if I was in the classroom. So this position has given me a chance to go beyond classroom learning.

Do you have a favorite exhibit, artifact, or story?

Our institution has a lot of attractions that will bring people here, particularly the story of the Underground Railroad. Our physical location is important. There is no better place to interpret the Underground Railroad than on the Ohio River. The Ohio River is the focal point for what we know today about the Underground Railroad because so many people made their escape through the river, particularly in the Cincinnati area, to freedom. So, the power of place is so important and I am so glad to be working here because of that.

Within our collection, we do have things such as a very sizable Civil War collection. And we have things related to local stories, such as the pot of Margaret Garner.

We have the “Kinsey African American Art & History Collection” opening this fall [November 4th]. This collection is an intersection between art and history. It starts with the 1600s and goes all the way into the 1800s. It is a very complete look at African American history through the arts. It’s very thorough.

This collection explores African American achievement... Slavery is a tough topic. Racism is a tough topic. But through this collection you just see how people were able to overcome. It’s a must see.


Can you talk about Cincinnati’s role in the Underground Railroad?

What I can say about this area in particular – and it kind of fits along with our theme here at the Freedom Center – that it’s about perseverance, courage, and cooperation and we saw that here in Cincinnati as it related the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t the fact that it was just African Americans…

it was whites and blacks working together to assist people to freedom. It was a movement of cooperation. For anyone that was making the choice to seek freedom, you had to have perseverance; you had to have courage.

So, I just think here in Cincinnati, at least here at our site, we do a good job of documenting those stories of abolitionists such as Levi Coffin, or the story of Margaret Garner.


What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of the job is research, just because of my love for history. I love to dive into a topic … maybe bring out new meanings that people did not know about a subject, a person, or an event. I try to make a contemporary spin on it for new audiences because often times people think it’s boring. We need to make connections now to our younger audiences and make it, you know, hip… make it fun.

We need to make it enjoyable, because if we don’t, then history is going to repeat itself. If we don’t have these conversations now, it will happen again. So, I think my role as an informal educator is to continue conversations about history, not to the point that it’s stagnant or stale, but so that it’s cutting edge, it’s fresh.

I remember hearing about the Freedom Center collecting items during the Women’s March in January. Can you talk about that experience?

The response to that was excellent. It was overwhelming, literally, but it was a good sign because, I think people were inspired by that call to action. People wanted to be a part of something. They felt they needed to take a stand. The Freedom Center is gearing up for a 2020 exhibit to celebrate the Suffrage Movement. We are going to use those items to show the continuation of history and that women are still fighting for their rights and to show what was started by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ida B. Wells is still being seen today – even in the sister marches. It was a powerful movement, so we’re happy to document that.

I love talking about contemporary topics. I am, you know…what do you call it? A millennial. [Laughing.] That’s my generation. I use hashtags. I am an Instagrammer. I feel like it’s the best way to make connections to people who look like me because that is a demographic that is missing within our museums. I don’t see people my age. We need to make connections and I feel that by addressing these contemporary topics we can get them in the door.


Why is women’s history important?

Preserving women’s history is important because we haven’t always had the same rights. These stories have to be championed. Also speaking to rights, as an African American woman, we were the last on the totem pole when it came to equal access. Not only were we being defined by our gender, but we were defined by our race. People, given the situation they were dealt with, overcame anyhow – people like Ida B. Wells. Ida B. Wells was instrumental during the suffrage movement. We had the white woman’s Suffrage Movement, but she was just as strong, saying, “We’re here too. We want the same things you do. Our color doesn’t make us any different. We want the same equal access to education and employment and the right to vote.” And she did a lot for the anti-lynching campaign, to bring American’s attention to the injustice of the lynching of black men. No one knew. Through her investigation, she brought that information out. W.E.B. DuBois said she was the woman who awakened America’s consciousness. To have that as a compliment … that is huge.


Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

My sheroes … Mary Jane McLeod Bethune and her efforts in education. She started Bethune-Cookman College with one dollar and fifty cents.

Hallie Quinn Brown. Hallie Quinn Brown was an Ohioan. She was an educator and she was an elocutionist. Brown, who was the first champion for women’s – specifically African American women’s – social clubs. She started the National Association for Colored Woman’s Club, which later became the National Council for Negro Women, but she was forerunner. Before Beyoncé and the formation, we had Hallie Quinn Brown. [Laughing.]

Who I think is definitely doing it right now, like in the come up, speaking to women, is Maxine Waters. ”Reclaiming my time,” is just a hashtag all by itself. But it speaks to …you know how sometimes you major the minor? You know how people just put the wrong energy in the wrong things? ... You need to reclaim your time. [Laughing.]

I think Kamala Harris is doing an excellent job. I would also give credit to Elizabeth Pierce who’s over at the Museum Center just for how she did what she did and to be this leader during this major restoration of the Cincinnati Museum Center is huge. As a young professional, she’s a mentor to me. She’s always trying to give encouraging words to me and other people. It’s meant a lot to me.