Underground Railroad Freedom Center: New National Museum Opens in Cincinnati

Ebony, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Underground Railroad Freedom Center: New National Museum Opens in Cincinnati


THEY were people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. They were also people like Arnold Gragston, David Ruggles, Calvin Fairbank, Josiah Henson, and Erastus Hussey, lesser known--but no less important--figures in the lexicon of Black American history.

With the mantra, "Liberty or death. If I can't have one, then I'd rather have the other," these heroic individuals--and countless others who may never be known--played an integral role in orchestrating the Underground Railroad, a loose string of routes, safe houses and secret hideaways that unraveled one of the worst forms of bondage the world has ever known.

These "conductors," abolitionists and White sympathizers helped some 100,000 slaves who fled the South, making a harrowing journey hundreds of miles North with little more than hope, faith, and stories of freedom to guide them.

It was across the water now known as the Ohio River, to a free land now known as Cincinnati, that many slaves tasted their first freedom. And even though Cincinnati was more of a pass-through city than a final destination, and the Underground Railroad was a continuation of at least 500 years of people seeking the promise of equality across the globe, it was at this place and time in American History that the perpetual struggle between slaves and those who enslave--between freedom and unfreedom--experienced its most defining moment.

And today, after some 150 years of reflection and a decade of planning, one of the most painful chapters in American history has a dedicated and poignant place--the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the northern bank of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati--to honor its champions.

The Freedom Center was conceived in 1994 and fund-raising for the project starling four years later. It wasn't until 2000 that Congress, through the Underground Railroad Freedom Center Act, established the center as a national interpretive site. The five-story Freedom Center took two years to design, with the construction team, headed by a Black architect, breaking ground in 2002.

"I'm excited," Freedom Center CEO Spencer Crew says. "I think that we all had expectations to create something special, but I'm not sure that we realized how special it was going to be now that it has come to fruition. It's just marvelous. What is best about it is the kind of response we have gotten from a wide variety of people. Everyone can come here and find something to connect with that has meaning for them, and that's what the dream has been all along. It is important to us that a personal connection arises as part of the experience."

The concept for the Freedom Center was first proposed by Robert Harrod, the executive director of the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now called the National Conference for Community and Justice) as a way the group could thank the community and celebrate its 50th anniversary. He initially thought it would be a small, perhaps traveling, museum. But with the help of the federal government and thousands of donors, including African-American-owned enterprises like the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, Leo Burner USA, and Johnson Publishing Company, as well as Fortune 500 companies like Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble (which donated $6 million), Ford Motor Company, Toyota Motor and Delta Airlines, the idea grew.

Today, in the midst of a city that has had more than its share of racial strife--particularly between African-Americans and the local police department--the Freedom Center is one of the most ambitious museum projects ever. City leaders hope the museum will be a constant reminder of how far race relations have come in the city, and how much more work needs to be done.

The Freedom Center is organized into three connected pavilions that represent the themes in the center's mission--courage, cooperation, and perseverance. …

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