August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To speak in archetypal clichés—without knowing where you came from, it can be difficult to understand where you are going. Nestled just south of Omaha in Nebraska City lies a piece of history that offers a window into the American love affair with slavery, and the fight for its abolition.

Built in 1855, Mayhew Cabin was once a stop on the famous Underground Railroad. Back then the cabin may have been inconspicuous, but as you drive through what is now Nebraska City, the small cottage sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Cathy Briley is the vice president of the board of directors for Mayhew Cabin. She says the relationship between slavery, racism, and present day prejudice makes Mayhew Cabin a valuable teaching tool in educating children about this segment of American history.

“Racism in all forms is wrong,” Briley says. “Slavery was abolished, so why does our museum matter? It matters because unfortunately, people of several colors still face racism today.”

MayhewCabin2Walking around the different displays and artifacts in the Mayhew welcome center, Bill Hayes could go on for hours explaining every detail regarding the rich history of the abolitionist movement. He has a master’s degree in history, and volunteering at the museum is a hobby. 

“The site (Mayhew Cabin) was privately owned from the late 1930s until 2002,” Hayes says. “What we want to do is try to focus on the history of slavery, and how you have the movement of people being opposed to it.”

Hayes says the geographical placement of Mayhew Cabin makes it a critical stop on the
Underground Railroad.

“Nebraska City was an important stopping point because across the river is Iowa, and any more south you would cross back into Missouri (a pro-slavery state).”

Walking into the cabin, the air seems inundated with mixed feelings of hope, fear, and freedom—emitted by those who sought safe harbor there. The furnishings are basic: two rocking chairs, a trunk, and a small bed in the loft upstairs. In the cellar below there is a shocking surprise. A tunnel, now accessible to the public, once led escaped slaves from the ravine 40 yards away right into the cellar itself.

Briley says the museum focuses less on the horrors of slavery, and more on the stories of those who risked their lives to aid in the freedom of slaves.

MayhewCabin4“John Kagi, our hero at the museum, sacrificed his life fighting for the freedom of others,” Briley says. “He gave so much. He was jailed, beaten, shot, hunted, and eventually killed for his involvement in the abolitionist cause.”

According to Hayes, Mayhew Cabin represents an ongoing legacy that needs to be part of American culture.

“We talk about equality, freedom, and justice,” Hayes says. “Those may not be very many letters, but those are big words. They’re big ideas, and that’s what this country has always thought of itself representing.”

Visit mayhewcabin.org for more information. Omaha Magazine

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