Building a monument to freedom Museum: Cincinnati community leaders are working to create the nation's largest center commemorating the Underground Railroad.

Sun Journal

September 08, 1998|By Cameron McWhirter | Cameron McWhirter,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CINCINNATI -- Runaway slave John Ellsley wrote to his friend in Louisiana on June 23, 1841: "Tell all your colored friends, in whom you have confidence, that if they can once get to Cincinnati, they can get liberty."

Ellsley's letter, intercepted by Southern whites and published in numerous newspapers, described a clandestine network in which abolitionists, black and white, smuggled slaves from Southern states to the North -- out of bondage toward freedom.

So secretive were the networks' conductors that the system, known today as the Underground Railroad, remains an elusive part of American history, shrouded in mystery and myth.

Now a group of Cincinnati community leaders is working to create the nation's largest museum commemorating and exploring this historic, and little understood, interracial effort.

Organizers of the proposed 135,000-square-foot National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, set to open in 2003 at an estimated cost of $80 million, plan to model it after the successful Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"The Holocaust Museum resonates with people because it touches their hearts," says Edwin J. Rigaud, a Procter & Gamble Co. executive on leave to serve as the Freedom Center's executive director and CEO. "That's exactly what were trying to do."

Plans began in 1994, when members of the local chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews began looking for a way to mark Cincinnati's role in the Underground Railroad as a way of building interracial understanding and cooperation. Support for a museum quickly developed.

The museum has secured the backing of the city, the National Park Service, Congress and numerous private charities and businesses. Ohio is putting together a funding package. The museum has raised $14 million in private and public money even before launching its national fund-raising campaign next year.

Rigaud has gathered an impressive roster of powerful individuals to aid in fund raising, including civil rights activist Rosa Parks, CBS newsman Bryant Gumbel and recording artist Quincy Jones. Cincinnati has given the Freedom Center valuable riverfront real estate near proposed new football and baseball stadiums.

Plans for the museum include major exhibits on the Underground Railroad, the abolitionist movement and slavery, as well as an academic research center and an interactive learning center. The center also plans to use endowment money to support a national curriculum on the Underground Railroad and to help promote other Underground Railroad sites.

But not everyone involved in Underground Railroad historic preservation is thrilled with the project.

Barbara Walker Dodson, president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Washington, fears the center might open to fanfare, and then succumb to flagging interest. "It's good to have commemoration," she says, "but I just hope it's a multipurpose venture and not something that just becomes a building between two stadiums by the river."

Cathy Nelson, president of the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, wonders if the center's size and cost might dwarf efforts to preserve smaller historic sites -- buildings used by runaway slaves that are sprinkled across 29 states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The center's "very corporate endeavor" could suck up all government money earmarked for preservation of actual buildings which were used to hide slaves, she says. Her organization has identified 475 buildings in Ohio alone -- many of them in poor shape and in need of restoration -- that are documented as having been involved in the Underground Railroad.

"If we had no places that needed help, then such a massive museum might be warranted," she says. "But right now these buildings have to be preserved."

Rigaud counters that his fund raising might help smaller museums by raising awareness of the Underground Railroad's importance in American history.

The major hurdle that he has faced in talking with potential donors, Rigaud says, is convincing them that Cincinnati is a good location for a national museum on such an important subject. For support, he turns to the past.

"We've got history on our side," he says. "But there are still people I talk to saying any national museum should be in Washington. Well, there really is no space there and there is no history to support its location in Washington. The history is in places like Cincinnati."

The Underground Railroad operated all over the central and eastern United States, from Maryland to Missouri. Nowhere was its presence more felt than in Cincinnati, then the largest city on the border between North and South.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the Cincinnati area was a stronghold of Underground Railroad activism. Local attorney Salmon Chase, who later served in President Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, fought so many cases to free slaves in Cincinnati courts that he was called "the Attorney General of Negroes."

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