Kids in Motion, Teens in Motion members learn during interactive Our Story Our Art: Changing Walls exhibit

“You owned nothing, absolutely nothing. You didn’t even own your name.”

As storyteller W.T. Johnson shared the emotions, dangers and tales of slavery in America, the group of youth from Kids in Motion and Teens in Motion — programs under the umbrella of Douglass Community Services — watched and listened with fervent attention. Johnson conveyed the fear, secret symbols woven in quilts and the many ways that members of the Underground Railroad and the journey to freedom amid a collection of murals, paintings, memorabilia and other items that tell countless stories that resonate just as strongly today.

The groups visited the Hannibal Arts Council Wednesday afternoon to hear Johnson speak and to visit the special exhibits on display during Black History Month in conjunction with Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center.

Teens in Motion member Kennedi Wallis said the symbols painstakingly stitched in the quilts were new to her. She said she knew that whites helped during the Underground Railroad, but the distinct images opened up a secret world for Wallis and fellow youth — a wagon wheel to denote a journey to freedom by wagon, a “drunken path” to warn of night riders who posed constant danger, a black square that meant runaway slaves could seek sanctuary at that home.

“I think it’s great to get a bunch of young minds together and educate them early — there’s so many good influences on them — and get all the young minds together, and think and brainstorm and learn more,” Wallis said.

Kids in Motion member Brent Allen found the presentation impactful, too.

Allen motioned toward two paintings that struck him on a profound level. In each scene, a man on the left stands on expansive ground against a stark white backdrop, whipping the man on the right with words that evoke negative emotions and divisiveness as they did years ago.

“They use words that would be offensive both then and now,” he said. “The man here is using the ‘n-word,’ whipping him with the ‘n-word,’ and it hurts him and it belittles him. That shrinks the ground that he’s on, and it has the opposite effect on the other man.”

Faye Dant, Executive Director of Jim’s Journey, said she wanted to share the exhibit with young people along with adults — offered an opportunity that came alive for the audience compared to a traditional classroom environment.

“When you hear it in this kind of setting, I think it means so much more,” she said. “The person who is doing the talking, what they’re surrounded by — the artwork and everything — I think it made it so much more valuable, more impactful.”

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