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Escaping From Slavery: Facing Our Past

Image: NURFC titler

Looking out over the Ohio River that once marked the boundary between the
American slave states and the free states, this dignified centre aims to
bring together peoples who were once divided by ideas about race.

Image: NURFC composite

Cincinnati lies on the north side of the Ohio River at a point close to the corners of three States – Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century the Ohio River was the dividing line between the slave-owning south and the non-slave north. It was therefore the last physical barrier for slaves who tried to escape north. Up until the Congressional Act which freed slaves in the United States, in 1865, some 100,000 of them were helped to escape to the north by a clandestine organisation known as the Underground Railroad.

With so many potential stories to tell it could be thought an obvious subject for a museum or exhibition centre in a city which has a high proportion of people of African descent. But black history in the USA as in Britain is related to slavery, exploitation and inhumanity. The UK is only just struggling towards a history which acknowledges that its industrial leadership was partly built on the ill treatment and killing of large numbers of human beings. The USA has edged slowly towards telling its own stories of inhumanity and the aftermath. The pioneering history project at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which first attracted visitors in 1932, was only able to tell its own story of slavery effectively in the 1980s (Greenspan, 2002).

Image: Cincinnati Museums Center

A display from the Cincinnati Museums
Center showing an African American
returning home safely after World
War II.

Local history in Cincinnati is now a popular topic thanks to the conversion of the spectacular Union Station building into a collection of museums, plus an Omnimax film theatre. In 1990 the Cincinnati History Museum was opened, where it has joined others devoted to science, and natural history. The half-dome shape of the former station building, with underground exhibition areas and an impressive approach avenue, makes for a unique and prestigious attraction. The city has two sports stadiums next to the Ohio River, where reconstructions of stern-wheeler boats ply up and down carrying tourists under the John A Roebling suspension bridge of 1866, which is an icon for Cincinnati. The Freedom Center occupies an area placed between the stadiums and at the downtown end of the bridge.

On the south side of the river is Covington, a small town with prestigious service companies, and next to it (and the bridge) Newport, which has scored a great tourist success with Newport on the Levee with a shopping mall, entertainments and an aquarium. Walk in downtown Cincy on a Sunday and there is little happening; walk in Newport and there is activity and fun. In addition, Cincinnati has had its racial tensions and social problems, as shown by the riots of April 2001 which shook the city to its core.

Click here to see the Cincinnati Enquirer reports

The National Underground Railway Freedom Center (the American spelling will be used when referring to the official title) had been proposed long before the riots, in 1994. Work began on the site in June 2002 and the Center was opened in August 2004. It offers a prime opportunity for what the local Cincinnati Enquirer pointed out in 2001 was a desperate local need – to bring city dwellers and groups in general closer together across the divides of skin colour and economic position.

The building consists of three linked ‘pavilions’, the outcome of a $110m fund-raising campaign. The feeling around the outside and within is of space and quality. Varied surface textures and colours have been used in a well integrated overall design. This is a special place in which to tell a special story. A broad terrace at first-floor level (to Americans, it’s the second floor) gives space to walk around or sit admiring the view across the Ohio River towards Covington, in line with the Roebling Bridge. Over there are murals freshly painted on a riverside wall with some of the region’s history represented, including that of the black slaves. One picture shows African Americans struggling through a snowstorm: were these people escaping the south – which was that side of the river? On the Freedom Center terrace burns an eternal flame of freedom – on the north side of the river which led to emancipation.

Image: NURFC - Slave Pen

The Slave Pen Exhibit
The largest artifact of the Freedom Center
is an authentic Slave Pen. Visitors listen
to Carl B. Westmoreland, Curator of the
Slave Pen & Senior Adviser for Historical
Preservation, tell the story of this
significant artifact / Mark Bealer Photography

[All interior photographs reproduced
courtesy of the National Underground
Railway Freedom Center, whose
copyright they are: original captions

The Center is not a museum, based around a collection of objects. It is a meeting place in which stories are told by interpretation panels and video shows. A series of rooms is devoted to different ‘chapters’. One large area contains a reconstruction of a slave hut – shown in the photograph. Video shows using actors in dramatic scenes tell of slave life, escape and the hazardous crossing of the Ohio into the north. Oprah Whinfrey, an important supporter of the project, introduces parts of the dramas in a professional and sensitive style. It all captures the imagination, but more importantly it captures the heart and the soul.

Image: NURFC - Boeing Flight to Freedom Theatre

Boeing Flight to Freedom Theater:
"Brothers of the Borderland" Film
A unique "environmental theater"
experience where visitors follow
the courageous actions of
Underground Railroad conductors
John Parker and Rev. John Rankin
of Ripley, OH / Farshid Assassi
– Assassi Productions

Image: NURFC - Escape display

ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers and the
Underground Railroad
This exhibit is the family-
friendly, interactive introduction
to Underground Railroad stories
of courage, cooperation, and
perseverance / Mark Bealer

Image: NURFC - Slavery to Freedom display

From Slavery to Freedom
In the largest and most
traditional exhibit space,
visitors explore the Middle
Passage, the institution of
slavery, the rise of
abolitionism and Underground
Railroad, and the Civil War
/ Farshid Assassi – Assassi

Towards the end of the sequence there is a different room, one which broadens out the theme of inhumanity and its effect upon communities. Here, wars and conflicts and terror strikes around the world are featured. At the time of my visit in early August 2005 there was already mention via a computer display screen of the London bombings of the previous 7 July. Near to this section is another in which children have left messages with their thoughts written up about troubled humanity and future hopes. Inside the entrance, back on the ground floor, is a shop which sells souvenirs of the visit, many of which have been made by people in underdeveloped regions of the world – South America, Africa, Asia, craft items and small works of art. There are books on black American history, people and events. But there does not appear to be a book about the Center itself, one which records the stories told in the video scenes in order to be read at leisure, at home. There is an informative web site, however, and the they can be found there. Walking around I could find no reference to the building’s architects: Perhaps it was there somewhere. The Center’s web site records them as Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis with BOORA architects supporting.

Image: NURFC -Concluding Experience

Reflect, Respond, Resolve: The
Concluding Experience
Visitors to the Freedom Center
have a safe place to consider,
interact, and join facilitated
dialogue to conclude their visit.
There are also interactive videos
where visitors are challenged to
see where they stand on social
issues, decide what they would
do to resolve conflict in certain
situations, and sign up to be
part of organizations that help
continue the struggle against
"UnFreedom." / Farshid Assassi
– Assassi Productions

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center exists to unite people of different ethnicity. It has a positive, affirming effect reminding its visitors that they are of one human family which has experienced many different histories. This is an issue-based attraction in the way that recent decades have seen the establishment of centres examining environmental issues. Too few exist at the present time. It is also one which tells an uncomfortable story: too few of those have been opened and more are needed. Northern Ireland’s troubled past, continental Europe’s vicious wars, have some representation. Every place would benefit from shining light onto the dark side.

Click here to visit the NURFC web site

Book mention:

Greenspan, A (2002) Creating Colonial Williamsburg, Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution

[also see the review of this book on a separate page]

Other pages:

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