Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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The road to freedom

  • The-road-to-freedom-2

    The $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opens tomorrow.

  • The-road-to-freedom

    Life-sized bronze statues depict slaves waiting to be shipped to America.



Life-sized bronze statues depict slaves waiting to be shipped to America.

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CINCINNATI - It's a simple, two-story wooden building made from rough-hewn logs, and it looks mightily out of place inside the modern curved stone, glass, and copper building in the middle of this city's bustling downtown.

But the innocuous-looking structure is actually a "slave pen," and it's very much at the heart - both literally and figuratively - of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The five-story, $110 million museum stands on four acres of prime real estate near the northern bank of the Ohio River, right between the Great American Ball Park, where Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds play, and Paul Brown Stadium, home of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. It is part of an ongoing $2 billion revitalization of the city's downtown riverfront area.

The Freedom Center, 10 years in the planning and two years under construction, uses interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, and plenty of inspirational stories to relate the history of slavery in America, and especially the famed Underground Railroad - a secret network of pathways and hideouts that helped runaway slaves make it to freedom for more than three decades during the 1800s.


The $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opens tomorrow.


Before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1863, the Underground Railroad was an informal system of routes that helped slaves in the South escape to freedom. Hiding in root cellars, churches, barns, caves, and safe houses, and being helped by railroad "conductors" - free African Americans, sympathetic whites, and even Native Americans - runaway slaves followed these routes to the North, but also into the western territories, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

The center also links slavery's history to race relations and freedom movements around the world today.

Much of the building's interior is bright and airy, with large windows that look out over the Ohio River and the Roebling Suspension Bridge that leads to Covington, Ky. Yet many of the exhibits create the unmistakable feeling of being on hallowed ground. People here speak in low voices, even whispers, as they move slowly from one gallery to another.

The 158,000-square-foot museum began letting people in to preview the place earlier this month, but its grand opening and dedication are scheduled for tomorrow, with appearances expected by some of its high-profile supporters, such as Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Williams, Quincy Jones, and Danny Glover.

The 20-by-30-foot slave pen, which is considered the defining artifact of the center, is a 170-year-old converted tobacco barn that was found on a northern Kentucky farm, taken apart, and reassembled at the museum, where it dominates the second-floor atrium. Once owned by a slave trader and farmer named John Anderson, it was used to temporarily warehouse slaves before they were shipped off to auction.

There are metal bars on each of its eight small windows, but no shackles or other obvious signs of the building's use remain. A single iron ring still juts out from the building's central joist; heavy chains once hung from such rings to tether the slaves - sometimes dozens at a time - who were being kept in there.

Documents on display near the slave pen say that at the time of Anderson's death, he owned "32 human beings, a stable of race horses, a silver saddle, and a list of accounts receivable."

At a time when corn was priced at $1 a barrel and flour $5 a barrel, a "negroe man" was valued at $550 to $650, and "field women" were worth $400 to $425.

Freedom Center spokesman Steve DeVillez said the new facility is a "museum of conscience," much like Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"Some people are comparing the slave pen to the boxcar at the Holocaust museum," he added, referring to the haunting exhibit in Washington that represents the Nazis' method of transporting hundreds of Jews at a time to the death camps of Europe.

At the Freedom Center, there's no particular order for viewing the exhibits, but an opening series of three short films, narrated by actress Angela Bassett, serves as an introduction to the museum - "to open up your mind" to what's in store, according to DeVillez. Fiber-optic lighting in the theater's ceiling is used to re-create the precise alignment of the stars in the pre-dawn sky on the day that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Another movie called Midnight Decision introduces a young slave named Caleb, who is trying to decide whether to make a desperate run for freedom with his family.

"The terrific thing about that one is that you don't see how the movie ends," DeVillez said.

That's because museum visitors, using a series of touch-screen computers outside the theater, can make choices that will affect the outcome of the story, actually determining whether Caleb gets captured or makes it to freedom.

The most forceful of the movies shown at the center is called Brothers of the Borderlands, which dramatizes how Underground Railroad conductors such as minister John Rankin and former slave John Parker risked their own lives helping hundreds escape slavery.

The film is shown in an "environmental theater" with piped-in natural sounds, trees and bushes aglow with fireflies, and floating mist below the screen that replicates a rural nighttime setting. During the movie, which depicts a slave's escape across the Ohio River with armed riders in pursuit, the audience hears buzzing insects, thundering horses' hooves, and even bullets whizzing by.

An area that should be a hit with younger visitors is called "Escape!" and as the name implies, many of its exhibits deal with the methods used by slaves to make their way to freedom. There's a hollow-bottomed wagon and other devices, but the big draw here probably will be a small wooden crate like the one used by a Virginia slave to make his escape.

The box, which children are encournaged to climb into, is 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2 1/2 feet high - the same dimensions as a crate used by Henry "Box" Brown, to make his escape from Richmond, Va. Brown, who was 5'8" and weighed about 200 pounds, had himself nailed into the crate and shipped to Philadelphia in 1849.

The journey took 26 hours - some of which Brown spent upside down as the crate was moved around - but he emerged a woozy but free man in Philly.

Like most museums, this one has its share of artifacts. In addition to the expected chains, shackles, and whips, other items on display include the rope used to hang abolitionist John Brown and a first-edition copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-known example of anti-slavery literature.

Another exhibit looks at the irony of a nation whose Constitution declared that "all men are created equal," - yet that same document tacitly acknowledged slavery by calculating that slaves should be counted as three-fifths of a person in determining each state's population.

In another irony, documents note that 11 of the United States' first 15 presidents owned slaves.

Some of the exhibits debunk commonly held perceptions - for example, while Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is credited with ending slavery, it actually resulted in very few slaves being freed. It wasn't until two years later that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution really got the job done.

The amendment, approved by Congress in January of 1865, was ratified by all the states later that year. Even the former Confederate states had to approve it - or else they couldn't get any of their representatives seated in Congress.

In an area dedicated to "Everyday Heroes," banners and plaques introduce visitors to people who have helped shape the face of freedom in the world. Some are famous, such as Nelson Mandella, Jackie Robinson, and Bob Marley, while others are lesser-known people such as sisters Emily and Mary Edmondson, slaves who were caught on the Potomac River trying to escape in 1848. Emily went on to work as an educator of both slaves and free women in Washington.

A flickering neon "unfreedom" sign and a parental advisory notice usher visitors into a narrow, tunnel-like room where images of more recent social injustices - starving children, imprisoned political detainees, street violence in several parts of the world - are flashed on the walls while sad, eerie music floats softly through the room.

"We don't take sides on the issues," said DeVillez. "We're here as an outlet to show what the struggles are, what the issues are. It's not for us to decide [the answers]. It's for you, the viewer, to decide."

At the end of the tunnel, spelled out in lights on the floor, is a famous challenge from the ancient Jewish rabbi Hillel: "If not you, then who? If not now, then when?"

Near the exit area is a glass-walled room called a "Dialogue Zone," where people who have been moved by the center's exhibits can sit and discuss issues of repression, discrimination, and freedom. Since emotions could be running high, most discussions will be aided by a "facilitator."

"We want to ensure we have a good, respectful exchange of views rather than a barrage of heated arguments," DeVillez said.

The location of the center is no accident; most scholars believe that as many as 40 percent of all escaping slaves crossed the Ohio River, which once separated slave and free territory. Cincinnati, where fugitive slaves first set foot on free soil, was the gateway to more than 500 Underground Railroad routes that spread out through in Ohio.

The Freedom Center has not been developed without controversy. Cincinnati has a history of racial tensions, and some local activists argue that the money spent building the museum could have been better used to address some of the black community's problems. About 60 percent of the center's funding came from private sources, and the rest is public money.

"We know we're not going to please everybody," said DeVillez. "The struggle does continue, and that's one aspect of the struggle."

He added that most of the community has embraced the Freedom Center, and sees it for what it is: "a celebration of the courage, cooperation, and perseverance" embodied in the story of the Underground Railroad, and a powerful reminder of the city's major role in helping fight the horrors of slavery.

During my visit to Cincinnati to see the Freedom Center, I stopped for lunch at a Wendy's here, and the song that was playing over the restaurant's sound system was Richie Havens' Woodstock anthem, "Freedom." That was followed by "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees.

Must have been just a coincidence, right?

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