Cover Story: Inclusion from the Ground Up

Developing the Freedom Center under a big tent

Matt Borgerding

Alphonzo Wesson waged war to make a film about the Underground Railroad

Since its inception, the mission of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been to highlight the city's history of interracial cooperation and foster these kinds of relationships in the present. A key factor in bringing this concept to fruition has been the involvement of minority-owned companies in the facility's development.

The Freedom Center claims to be the second largest museum in the nation designed by an African-American architect and the largest museum to feature African Americans from its core to completion. African Americans filled 40 percent of the 1,404 positions created by the project.

Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis and BOORA Architects of Portland, Ore., were chosen from a field of 65 applicants to design the project, according to Alpha Blackburn, CEO of Blackburn Architects.

"We were persuasive and got the contract because we were passionate about the mission," she says. "We didn't walk in there with any preconceived notions."

From the beginning, the museum's staff and board expressed a strong commitment to the participation of minority and women-owned firms in the center's development, Blackburn says.

In taking on this project, she says her company understood the potential for the center to be a catalyst for controversy and change. The symbolism of the center amidst the city's racial climate was very evident during construction, especially in April 2001.

"It was divine providence," Blackburn says. "It made us even more determined to move towards completion."

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Alphonzo Wesson uses the word "war" to sum up his experiences in producing Brothers of the Borderland, an interactive environmental film produced for the museum.

"It was war against the elements, it was war with various perspectives in terms of the way that the Underground Railroad was presented and what the story was about," he says. "But that's indigenous to any production."

Wesson's company, ZoMotion Productions, worked with another local production company, Jack Rouse and Associates. Wesson's was the only African-American-owned company awarded a film production contract. He says he was attracted to the center after hearing about the concept.

"I believe in the principles of the Underground Railroad," Wesson says. "You had African Americans working with European Americans, even though slavery was legal, saying that it was morally reprehensible and we must do something about it. I love the whole idea of people who are enlightened working together for equality."

Competition for the production contracts was stiff, according to Wesson. He says his passion for his craft and strong connections to the spirits of his ancestors gave his company the edge over his competition. The title of the treatment and letter he submitted to the selection board was "The Blood of My Ancestors Cries Out for Justice."

"I still feel their tears fall about my head and shoulders when I do something that they could not have dreamt of," he says.

Wesson says creating the film in Cincinnati's racial climate city was sometimes touchy. When Julie Dash, the nationally renowned director whom Wesson collaborated with, arrived at Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Wesson drove her straight to Over-the-Rhine.

"I wanted her to understand the context and environment in which we were making this movie," he says.

Despite the various fits endured during production, Wesson and Dash say the experience was gratifying. Dash expressed admiration for the Freedom Center staff and consultants for their "tremendous undertaking."

Wesson says the opportunity to work with Oprah Winfrey was the highlight of his career. She appeared in the film free of charge, in addition to her donating $1 million to the center.

"For the challenges that it took to get this film made, it was worth it — not only to tell a story and tell it in a way that preserved the dignity of all involved in the Underground Railroad, but to work with someone of that caliber," Wesson says.

Other African-American donors played a significant role in fund-raising. The single largest donation was $3 million from Robert Johnson, owner of Black Entertainment Television.

Other minority contributions include a number of nationally known scholars, artists, local craftsmen and a host of service providers that range from public relations to Web site and graphic design firms.

Gwen Turner, owner of the North Star Café at the Freedom Center, says her experience with the selection process and collaboration have been advantageous for her catering company, C'est Ci Bon. After attending an information session, Turner met with representatives of B&B Riverboats/Benson's Catering, who are now partnering with her on the center's food services.

"I did my homework," Turner says. "I laid my cards on the table, said, 'This is who I am' and presented my business up here. And when they called back, that was a blessing in itself." ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.