First proposed in 1994, The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was a long time in the making, but last year it was finally dedicated in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over 20,000 people attended the ceremonies, including First Lady Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassett.
The museum honors a system of cooperation among African American slaves, free African Americans, abolitionists, sympathetic Whites and Native Americans who helped slaves escape to freedom. This informal system of escape routes originated in the South and extended to the North, into the western territories, and also to Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Cincinnati was chosen as the site of the Freedom Center because its location on the Ohio River puts it “at the crossroads of freedom's journey.” In the 1800s the city served as a major hub of activity on the Underground Railroad, and its banks offered refuge to thousands seeking hope and a new way of life.
The Museum’s stated Mission is to “reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, past and present, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center brings to life the inspiring, heroic stories of courage, cooperation and perseverance in the pursuit of freedom, especially from Underground Railroad history. We provide forums for inclusive dialogue, and encourage every individual to take a journey that advances freedom and personal growth.”
With 90 permanent staff members and more than 700 volunteers, the Museum features several important exhibits exploring slavery, the Underground Railroad itself, and the modern day struggle for freedom. The exhibits include:
· Slave Pen – the two-story structure rescued from a Kentucky farm and preserved as the defining artifact of the Center.
· ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad – a specially designed exhibit for children grades 3 through 8 within the context of escape and rescue covering 1830 to1861.
· Brothers of the Borderland – an interactive environmental theatre experience focused on Underground Railroad heroes from the local region.
· From Slavery to Freedom – provides historical context to understand how slavery could coexist in the land of the Declaration of Independence and how this gave rise to the
Underground Railroad, particularly during the period of 1776 to 1865.
· The Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes – highly interactive and engaging, this exhibit is designed to showcase and “introduce” visitors to key individuals throughout history who
have helped shape the world’s landscape of freedom.
· The Struggle Continues – the legacy of the Underground Railroad is examined as influencing later day freedom movements through contemporary society.
· Reflect, Respond, Resolve – a safe place to reflect and engage in one-to-one or group dialogues about the experiences and issues that visitors have just encountered.
Several prominent citizens are supporters of the project, including Muhammad Ali, Jack Kemp, Vanessa Williams, Danny Glover, Rosa Parks, Bono, Angela Bassett, Dr. James Horton, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.