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National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Cincinnati museum offers rare look
at slavery in America

By Debra Maylum
Staff Writer

CINCINNATI (June 2005) – Located on the northern banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s location was once the crossroads to freedom for fugitive slaves escaping to free northern states. First proposed in 1994 and incorporated in 1995, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004.

Freedom Center

Photo by Don Ward

The National Underground Railroad
Freedom Center overlooks the
Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati.

Architect Walter Blackburn, the grandson of former slaves, designed the center’s three buildings that total 158,000 square feet. They represent courage, cooperation and perseverance. The metaphorically rich curving architecture reflects the winding river and the challenging path to freedom.
Most scholars estimate that as many as 40 percent of all freedom seekers crossed the Ohio River’s “freedom corridor,” which spans from Maysville, Ky., to Madison, Ind. The Freedom Center sits at the center of the 200-mile stretch of towns along the Ohio River that played significant roles in the freedom stories of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
“The emotional connection that Americans have to personal stories of freedom, combined with innovative and imaginative methods of storytelling, will make this one of the nation’s most memorable museum experiences ever,” said Dr. Spencer Crew, Freedom Center Executive Director and CEO.
Through artifacts and interactive exhibits, the center brings historical and present day freedom struggles to the forefront. Traveling the recommended path through the museum, guests will first experience the two-story Slave Pen. It was rescued and restored by museum officials and donated by the current land-owner of the Pinecrest Farm near Maysville, Ky. There the Slave Pen was used in the 1800s to house slaves during the selling process. It is the center’s defining artifact.
Next, visitors will enter the Suite for Freedom Theater. It serves as an introduction to the Freedom Center’s core themes: “UnFreedom,” slavery and the Underground Railroad.
It was taken into consideration in the center’s design that people learn in different ways, said Steve DeVillez, public relations coordinator for the Freedom Center. The Freedom Theater is just the first example of the multiple and sometimes untraditional mediums used throughout the center.
The rest of the journey through the Freedom Center includes visits to Brothers of the Borderland; From Slavery to Freedom; Everyday Freedom Heroes and The Struggle Continues.

Freedom Center display

Photo by Debra Maylum

Inside the museum are many impressive displays.

The exhibits feature powerful stories, celebrations of heroes and images of injustice. Through these experiences, guests take on the roles of victim, oppressor, bystander, freedom seeker and ally. At the end of the very personal journey, guests enter the final exhibit where they are given the opportunity to make sense of everything they have seen. Trained counselors are available, and often lead one on one or group discussions among visitors who are welcome to participate or simply listen in.
Freedom Center officials know that just as people learn in different ways, they like to express themselves in different ways.
“Reflect, Respond, Resolve,” the final exhibit, is a welcoming space where guests can discover their own way to become engaged in today’s efforts for freedom. Through interactive stands, visitors are able to reflect on what they have seen and find ways to put their new perspective to good use.
“How many visitors we have is not as important as what those visitors are going to do when they leave here,” said DeVillez.
In its mission to promote Underground Railroad history, the Freedom Center additionally encourages guests to visit “Freedom Stations” and heritage sites around the country.
Many sites in Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky are mentioned and as more research throughout the “freedom corridor” is completed, this area will likely become increasingly important to the overall story.

• The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 E. Freedom Way in downtown Cincinnati. For information, call (513) 333-7500 or visit: www.freedomcenter.org.

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