A New Eye on History: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Updates Its Mission with a Focus on Modern-Day Slavery

By Galuszka, Peter | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

A New Eye on History: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Updates Its Mission with a Focus on Modern-Day Slavery


Galuszka, Peter, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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With great fanfare and high hopes, celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali and Laura Bush helped break ground for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati in mid-June 2002.

Two years later, the $110 million center, 10 years in planning, opened with exhibits on how enslaved African-Americans risked their lives to make the northward trek to freedom. Yet, the project suffered declining attendance and budget cuts. Within the last three years, the center has eliminated about 30 percent of its staff.

Today, however, a comeback is imminent. The center is shifting its focus while serving as an educational focal point, research asset and change agent. Area universities use it to research human rights, advance digital technology as a teaching tool and help train future educators.

In a new twist, the center has become a starting point for research and advocacy involving 21st-century slavery and human trafficking.

"We try to convey that slavery didn't end with the Civil War," says center spokesman Paul Bernish.

Modern-day slavery can involve such events as young girls being kidnapped and forced into prostitution in India or Thailand, known for its sex tourism. Other forms involve forced labor.

"About 12 million people around the world are involved (in modern-day slavery), and about 43 percent involves the sex industry," says Bernish.

In Ohio, South Korean women are forced into prostitution, according to center research. They work from recreational vehicles that pass from Canada to various places in the U.S., including Cincinnati. Other forms of modern-day slavery involve undocumented immigrants, largely Latino, whose livelihood and lives are in the complete control of their factory foremen.

Although 40 states have laws against human trafficking, as does the federal government, the situation needs more attention. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has become a starting point for research on modern-day slavery. Putting a face on this issue, this woman in her early 20s was trafficked into a blue-jean sweatshop in Thailand where she was locked in and made to work 20 hours a day with little to eat and no pay. She escaped to a government-run shelter in Bangkok and informed police about the sweatshop.

Bernish says the center helps lobby state legislatures such as Ohio's to toughen laws and raise awareness. Last July, the center published a report on modern-day slavery, and it has held exhibits in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

The topic is a rich vein for area schools to mine. Modern-day slavery is a major study area for the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights at the University of Cincinnati. Students from the university's law school have put together two displays at the Freedom Center on the issue. …

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