National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: A Trip to the Past with Hope for the Future

March 31st, 2018  |  Published in March 2018

On the Cincinnati banks of the Ohio River sits the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum commemorating historic events of three decades prior to the Civil War.  Slaves crossed the river to freedom from Kentucky.  Cincinnati is where the Underground Railroad originated.  Many people consider the center’s existence controversial.

It also features an education center, bias lab and the Harriet Tubman Theater available for films, performances and exhibits in addition to other programs and services.

The image is of the RagGonNon by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940 – 2015) from Columbus, OH. It is a two-part mural piece. Photo by Laura A. Hobson

The mission of the center is “to reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps of light for inclusive freedom around the globe today.”

Chris Miller, manager, Program Initiatives, said, “The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center brings to the city hope and understanding.”  Miller said, “This is one of the few national institutions addressing the Underground Railroad.   We talk about the Underground Railroad, its myths, and people looking for actual railroad tracks,” he said.  He added there is a lack of true understanding and significance about the railroad.

The National Conference for Community and Justice – Cincinnati Chapter chose a 50th anniversary project, the Freedom Center, in the early 1990’s.  Chip Harrod, former executive director, NCCJ – Cincinnati, and Harry Whipple, former publisher of The Cincinnati Enquirer, convened a community advisory committee to commemorate the history of the Underground Railroad which they viewed as the first human relations movement in an effort to eradicate slavery. (NCCJ is now known as Bridges for a Just Cause.)

Ed Rigaud, a former Procter & Gamble executive, brought the idea of a museum to John E. Pepper, Jr., former chief executive officer and chair, P&G (1995 – 2002).  The concept was launched.  Rigaud became its first executive director. He reached out to Melody Sawyer Richardson, who became a key Board fundraiser.  Richardson asked Francie Hiltz to help with the effort.  Barbara Gould was also a key early supporter and Board member.

Other people such as Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr. and Judge Nathaniel Jones were also instrumental in the founding of the Freedom Center. They chose the physical location of 50 E. Freedom Way in downtown Cincinnati near the Ohio River because of its historical significance near Bucktown, one of Cincinnati’s earliest African-American communities and proximity to the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which connected symbolically to Kentucky, a slave-owning state.   The bridge was suspended for some time so that slaves could not cross it.

African-American architect Walter Blackburn of Indianapolis drew up the plans.  He chose the design with curves that reflect the current of people moving from south to north.  The rough stone represents the struggle; the smooth side represents triumph.  BORA architects of Portland, Oregon was another designer of the project after a national search.

Groundbreaking occurred in 2002.  More than 14,000 people attended the opening in August 2004. In 2005, 280,000 people visited the center coming from 50 states and 35 countries.  Since its opening, 1.3 million people have attended NURFC.

The center attracts women from 28 to 45 as its biggest draw as well as people of all ages and a variety of businesses for an intergenerational experience.  It also serves groups with disabilities, blind or partially sighted visitors, deaf or hard of hearing visitors, service animals and wheelchairs.

Education Coordinator Novella Nimmo gives a school tour to a fourth-grade class. Photo by Laura A. Hobson.

The center merged with the Cincinnati Museum Center in 2012.

A two-floor slave pen on a farm from Mason County, Kentucky was moved to the center and fully reconstructed.  Kentucky slave trader Captain John W. Anderson used the structure as a holding pen to temporarily keep enslaved people from being moved farther south for sale.  The pen played an integral role in the greater story of internal slave trade in America.  Some people regard the pen as controversial because of it does not give a sense of how slaves were treated.

NURFC also offers the Freedom Stations Program, a legacy national outreach program linking historic Underground Railroad sites, research centers, university library collections, and museums engaged in Underground Railroad and slavery era research, and historic preservation.

The Open Your Mind learning lab located on the first floor is designed to assist the public in understanding and recognizing bias and other forms of discrimination as well as to explore recent debates in the realm of implicit bias research.

An Invisible:  Slavery Today exhibit provides visitors with a guide about how slavery can still be found today.  There is also a focus on people being trafficked sexually now.

New president Dion Brown joined the center in February 2018.  He came from the National Blues Museum in St. Louis, Missouri where he served as executive director.

Outside the building is an eternal flame that keeps burning.  It represents the candles placed in the windows of Underground Railroad operators.

–Laura A. Hobson

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