Photo by Mark Bowen
Negro spirituals before the Civil War referred to the Ohio River as the River Jordan. It was an extension of the Mason-Dixon Line, dividing the slave-holding South from the Promised Land “free” North. Now, on the north bank of that river in Cincinnati, a new institution will focus on the struggle for freedom—in the past and in the present.
On August 23, 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will open amid much fanfare. That day coincides with the United Nations’ annual International Day of Commemoration for the Abolition of Slavery. The center opens four years after the U.S. Congress enacted the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Act, and 10 years after the idea was first proposed. Compared to similar centers, it was fast-tracked.
The center has been constructed at a cost of $110 million, raised from government and corporate sources, plus individual donations.
The five-story, three-pavilioned, 158,000-square-foot building sits on four acres of prime Cincinnati real estate. It is nestled between the new Paul Brown Football Stadium and the new Great American Ball Park, part of the city’s $2 billion revitalization of the riverfront.
The Underground Railroad was not a physical railroad, but a loose network of people and places that helped slaves escape to freedom. It had its own secret routes, conductors and stations (or safe houses). Prior to 1865, the Underground Railroad brought an estimated 100,000 slaves to freedom, out of the millions of African-Americans enslaved between 1640 and 1865.
“It wasn’t the Underground Railroad in itself that was important,” insists Daniel I. Hurley, a Cincinnati public historian who was the original project manager for the center and spoke with St. Anthony Messenger last March. (In June, Hurley became the assistant vice president for history and research at the Cincinnati Museum Center.)
“The Underground Railroad is actually a metaphor for the ongoing struggle for freedom,” Hurley says. “It is at the core of the American story, the struggle for freedom which everyone recognizes as the American story, the struggle for freedom by those who were enslaved and by those who were willing to help them.”
Freedom is the story the center aims to tell. “Fundamentally, this isn’t a history museum,” Hurley explains. It’s not a quiet place where people come to look at old objects and go away unchanged. It is “a center of activity.”
That’s how the president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Edwin J. Rigaud, also describes it. “It’s really an educational institution that exposes people to history but also gets them to begin to think about how you take those lessons from history and apply them today,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger. “The particularly poignant stories from the Underground Railroad reveal lessons of courage, cooperation and perseverance. What we’re encouraging people to do is to relive those exciting stories and search within themselves for the same kind of courage and cooperation and perseverance to advance the cause of freedom today.”
The center is in the tradition of other institutions of conscience like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which raised the bar for contemporary museums.
The Freedom Center considers itself “a cultural institution for the 21st century,” according to Executive Director and CEO Dr. Spencer Crew. The center will feature high-tech, interactive exhibits, but the emotional center is a slave pen found in Mason County, Kentucky, near Maysville. Built in 1830, it’s a two-story, hewn log house with a fireplace, preserved only because a larger barn was built over it for tobacco drying. Men were kept shackled to iron rings on the first floor, women on the second.
The pen belonged to a farmer, Capt. John W. Anderson, who became in-volved in the internal slave trade. Anderson bought slaves on nearby farms and eventually transported them downriver to auctions in Natchez and New Orleans.
For “able-bodied” men and women 12 to 25 years old, Anderson would never pay more than $400 and sell for triple that amount. From 1832 to 1834, he made $50,000, approximately one million in today’s dollars.
No one is sure how many slaves were kept in this pen over the years because, as property, slaves were taxable. Anderson would skim from the government by not recording purchases.
As this slave pen was being reconstructed, Carl Westmoreland, senior curator and senior advisor at the center, told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the building “has the feeling of hallowed ground. When people stand inside, they speak in whispers. It is a sacred place.”
Rita C. Organ, the center’s director of exhibits and collections, agrees. She’s the former curator of exhibitions at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and was quoted in The Cincinnati Enquirer saying, “Anybody who has ever visited [the slave pen] feels its power. The first time I entered, I cried. It’s almost like the walls were talking.”
There will be a preferred route through the museum, but visitors may go any way they choose, unlike the Holocaust Memorial Museum. They will start with an orientation film, which explores the themes of “unfreedom” (the center’s word), slavery and the Underground Railroad. There will be five inaugural exhibits, each with some audio-video component:
• “Escape! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad” is designed for children grades three through eight. It presents the stories of some important figures like Harriet Tubman and displays a wagon with a false bottom for hiding slaves, a house with hiding places and a crate similar to the one used by a Virginia slave who shipped himself to Philadelphia.
• A unique story theater presents Brothers of the Borderland, narrated by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Julie Dash. Watching this fast-paced story of an exciting Ohio River escape, a visitor feels the breeze off the river, sees its mists and lightning bugs, and hears bullets whiz by.
• “From Slavery to Freedom” provides historical context on slavery. A circular room commemorates the “Middle Passage” of enslaved Africans sailing to the New World aboard ships with such incongruous names as Amity. This section looks at the economic ramifications of slavery for rice, tobacco and cotton cultivation.
There’s an area about the abolitionist movement and the role of churches in ending slavery. Catholics struggling at the low rungs of an immigrant society were not in the forefront of the abolitionist movement, points out Hurley, a Catholic and member of Bellarmine Parish. The Catholic Church itself remained carefully neutral on the issue of slavery. Thus, unlike some Protestant churches, it did not split. But some Catholics did help fugitive slaves or, at least, did not turn them over to the law, Hurley says.
There will be ample forewarning so parents and teachers can decide if they want their charges to see graphic items related to slavery—like shackles, chains or photographs of lynchings.
The last two sections bring the issue of freedom into the 21st century:
• The “Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes” will feature the names of more than 100 “ordinary” people who have worked to improve freedom in our society. The Center’s Web site solicited suggestions of who to include, and new names will be added annually.
• “The Struggle Today” examines the influence of the Underground Railroad on subsequent movements to oppose tyranny, genocide and hunger. It opens with an area called “Birmingham to Berlin,” from the civil-rights movement in the United States to the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989. At interactive kiosks visitors can answer situational questions and can compare their answers with those of other visitors.
This final area was developed in collaboration with the Urban Morgan In-stitute of Human Rights, which is part of the University of Cincinnati College of Law. There will be clips from radio and TV news programs on topics like the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. The last image in this section will always be one of hope, the center’s creators promise.
Because the Holocaust Memorial Museum lacks an opportunity to process, vent or react with others after learning about an emotionally wrenching subject, the Freedom Center was determined to provide one.
A “Reflect, Respond, Resolve” area following the exhibits has been set aside as a safe place to have one-on-one or group dialogues about what visitors have just seen. Black and white graduate psychology students from Xavier University under Dr. Cathy McDaniels Wilson have been trained to facilitate these.
At the end, visitors can choose to get involved with Amnesty International or other organizations working to expand freedom today, putting what they’ve learned into action.
The library will be open to anyone wishing to investigate family histories. Plans are proceeding to link the Freedom Center with the genealogical treasures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
Teachers will have their own educational resources area. There are also places for live performances, storytelling, hands-on projects and author presentations, as well as a cafe.
Starting in 2005, changing exhibits will consider such issues as child labor and the role of religion in civil rights.
“People went in all directions” on the Underground Railroad, Hurley points out. “Obviously, they went from the southern states that supported slavery legally to northern U.S. states and Canada, but they also went south into Mexico and, before 1821, into Spanish-held Florida. They went on ships to New York or islands in the Caribbean. Some escaped to places in the South where no one was going to find them: swamps or mountainous areas where they could live without the supervision of white masters. But most people think of the Underground Railroad as going from the South to the North.”
Not only did the Ohio River function as a geographical division between North and South, Hurley says, “but it was also a social reality. Many people who were enslaved used the river to escape and many people came through Cincinnati.” Some historians estimate that a third of those who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad did so within 100 miles of Cincinnati.
By 1850, Cincinnati was the sixth-largest and the fastest-growing city in the United States. On the Ohio River, the city was “a tremendous port of transit on the inland river system,” Hurley says. Slavery was weakening in Kentucky, which had become a slave-exporting state, like Virginia. Many enslaved people had some freedom of movement along this boundary between North and South.
“When you look at the stories of people who did escape, you find out that, in many, many cases, they lived somewhere in Kentucky and were sent on a regular basis to Cincinnati to sell the farm’s goods. They moved across the Ohio River as slaves into ‘free territory,’ and went back all on their own, unsupervised—because back home was family, wives, mothers, fathers, children. But at some moment, they decide they are not going back,” Hurley says.
When an owner died and the estate was going to be settled, “This is a time of great uncertainty for the slaves,” Hurley says. “Individual slaves or whole families could be sold to pay off debts. This is when some people decided, ‘If I’m ever going to make a break, I’ll make it now.’”
This fact confronts one of the prevailing myths about the Underground Railroad: “The basic decisions were not made by the people in the North. They were made by the enslaved person deciding, ‘I’m going to risk everything to seize freedom for myself,’” Hurley says.
A large community of free blacks lived in Cincinnati. Some had escaped from slavery themselves; most had bought their way out of slavery but chose to live near family members whose freedom they were now working to secure.
Cincinnati was also a center of abolitionist activity among whites. The Rev. Lyman Beecher came to Cincinnati from Boston to support this movement. His daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which made the issue of slavery real for many whites.
But escaping slaves, more likely than not, sought help in the free black communities, not from abolitionists, Hurley insists. Blacks had no reason to trust white people. The white publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist, James Birney, could honestly write in an 1835 letter that he never knew about groups of runaway slaves passing through Cincinnati until after they had left.
In Quaker settlements nearby such as Springboro, Ohio, strong anti-slavery convictions occasionally led whites into the civil disobedience of helping a fugitive slave. The town claims 37 safe houses, which used an elaborate system of signal quilts hung outside.
In nearby Ripley, Ohio, white Presbyterian minister John Rankin would put a candle in the window if his place was safe that night. (This candle is the basis for the Freedom Center’s logo.) And a former slave, John Parker, helped runaways across the river there. Other river towns in Ohio and Indiana also sheltered slaves.
Although the Underground Railroad was not as interracial or as organized as people think, it’s a powerful story. “People came together around important principles, centered on the idea of freedom,” says Dr. Crew. “It’s a very exciting story of individuals banding together to make a difference and cause change in society. What we are positing is that same spirit is needed in the present day as well.”
That is why the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) chose to do something around the Underground Railroad to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Greater Cincinnati chapter.
Robert C. (“Chip”) Harrod, who has been the chapter’s executive director for 20 years, was inspired by a visit to the U.S. Civil Rights Museum in Memphis where he sat in the bus and felt for a moment as though he were Rosa Parks. Then he sold the NCCJ board on the idea.
In an interview, Harrod says NCCJ’s basic purpose was “to give something back to the community in gratitude for its half century of support for our work. The board wanted this gift to meet three different needs: be germane to our mission of fighting bigotry and racism and of promoting respect and understanding among persons of different races, religions and cultures; be something the city needed; and have monumental standing and a perpetual life span.”
During the 10 years of the center’s development, NCCJ changed its name to the National Conference for Community and Justice, first, to be more inclusive (since they have Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and other members), and second, to describe what they do.
The Freedom Center project was incorporated separately from NCCJ in 1995. The founding co-chairmen were Dr. Lawrence Hawkins of the University of Cincinnati and Harry Whipple, publisher (now publisher emeritus) of The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Judge Nathaniel R. Jones succeeded the retiring Hawkins later in 1995. Judge Jones, another NCCJ member, had been general counsel for the NAACP from 1969 until 1979, active in the fight for school desegregation, and then spent 24 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In 2002 he received the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. (Now retired from the bench, he is senior counsel at Blank Rome LLP in the commercial litigation practice group.)
There are those who criticize the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for merely dredging up unpleasant history. Judge Jones firmly believes, “You must know the past to change the present.”
Rigaud is in accord: “Until we confront our past, we’re not going to move forward.” He admits, “This is a subject we’re afraid to talk about. We have all kinds of reasons—guilt, shame, embarrassment. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that separation between the races will remain—if not worsen—if we don’t confront the cause of separation that is rooted in history, in our past, in slavery. It’s rooted in people still thinking of others as lesser, not fully human; as property, not as equals; and not providing the common human respect and dignity for every individual.”
Harrod, who worked for three years for the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission while he was going to night law school, says, “I think the Freedom Center will provide a good central focus for the ongoing discussion that must happen to advance race relations in America. What many of us who work in the field of race relations fear most is apathy and the lack of attention to this unfinished business in America.”
The center’s long-term economic viability has been questioned. Dr. Crew says that the Freedom Center has worked with other institutions of conscience to develop sound economic models. Admission prices will not cover most of the Freedom Center’s costs. The center will always be fund-raising and may need continuing governmental support.
The corporate sponsorship is also troubling, but Dr. Crew is adamant: “Intellectual control of the exhibits and programming of the Freedom Center has always been in the hands of the Freedom Center’s staff.”
Those heavily involved in this project have learned many things along the way. For Ed Rigaud, for example, it was the role of the slave in the escape, the aspect of self-determination on the part of slaves and their tremendous amount of courage and drive and ingenuity in escaping. “What’s surprising is that the vast majority of escapes were without the assistance of any abolitionists or conductors.”
Another surprise to him was the role of free blacks and how instrumental they were in helping slaves to escape.
The third was “how horrific” slavery was, even for those who were well-treated. “I read about this woman who was pregnant and upset her master over something,” says Rigaud. “They dug a hole and laid her belly in the hole to beat her so they wouldn’t injure the baby.”
Hurley discovered that white Americans first got interested in the Underground Railroad in the 1890s, about the time Jim Crow laws arose to keep blacks “in their place.” In 1893 Plessey v. Ferguson declared that “separate but equal” education was constitutional. The nation is now 50 years removed from Brown v. Board of Education that integrated schools. The enthusiasm that fueled the civil-rights movement of the ’60s is cooling. The Freedom Center could be just another way to keep blacks “in their place,” or it could inject new and needed energy into the struggle for civil rights, Hurley points out.
Judge Jones, co-chairman of the center’s board, was an observer at one of South Africa’s treason trials in 1985 and later was a consultant in drafting that country’s new constitution. He thinks apartheid was terrible, but he told St. Anthony Messenger in May that the subtle, institutionally protected racism practiced by countries like ours may have many similarities. He has faith that the Freedom Center’s exhibits and discussions will engage youth and create some change.
Harrod says he’s been reminded through the Freedom Center that “residing in every human being is the potential to be a hero or a heroine.” And he’s “witnessed firsthand a project where African-American and white leaders rolled up their sleeves and as equals undertook a monumental undertaking of building a national institution together—something perhaps unprecedented in this community and maybe elsewhere. And 10 years later, at the end of the day, both races are deeply enriched by the experience.”
What surprised and inspires Dr. Crew is the commitment of all the people working on this project. That’s why he left a prestigious job as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to take on this fledgling institution. The opportunity “was just too inviting and too exciting to pass up....It was clear to me that getting involved with this organization was a chance to make a difference.”
If the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center can accomplish a 10th of its goals, it will indeed make a difference.
The Web site www.nurfc.org contains information about the center. The center will be open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ticket prices are $12 for general admission, $10 for seniors (those over 60) and $8 for children ages six to 12.