Cover Story: Tell It Like It T-I-S

Center leaders say it won't shy away from controversy

Aug 18, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

Why not put the Freedom Center in Over-the-Rhine, asks the Rev. Damon Lynch III.

Complexities of race, class, presentation and accuracy not only describe Cincinnati's new icon, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, but the skepticism about it as well.

Local and national political leaders and social activists have concerns that range from the historical accuracy of the portrayal of enslaved African Americans to the influence of corporate and public development funds used to build the facility. The museum's mission — using presentations about past and present heroes of freedom to inspire visitors to strive for racial reconciliation — has yet to convince many of its relevance.

Talk show host Jonathan Love has discussed the opening of the Freedom Center on WDBZ (1230 AM). The overall feedback has been negative, he says.

"Most people don't understand how Cincinnati ended up with such a facility, given the city's recent and historic role in African-American history," he says.

Love says callers are more concerned about contemporary issues such as unemployment, economic development in urban communities, disenfranchisement in the 2000 presidential election and the potential for it to reoccur in 2004. Most callers easily glean the historical connections to these issues but fail to understand the museum's role in tackling them, according to Love.

"I don't know if a comfy, cozy trip through a museum that doesn't literally show the blood, literally the sweat and literally the separation of the African-American family is going to do it," he says.

Nathan Ivey, also a WDBZ talk show host, says the majority of African-American callers on his show agree with those concerns.

He says the level of corporate sponsorship and perceived lack of diversity in the staff and board are potential factors for diluting the presentation of the true horrors of slavery.

That concern is misplaced, according to Spencer Crew, the Freedom Center's executive director.

"Intellectual control over the material remains in the hands of the institution, the management, not in the hands of the corporations," he says. "I've been adamant about that since I've walked in the door."

The need to disturb
Chip Harrod, executive director of the National Conference for Community Justice (NCCJ), conceived the idea to build Freedom Center. Extensive interviews with a number of diverse focus groups across the country preceded the development of the exhibits, he says.

The meetings are the basis of "The Magic of Dialogue," a report by Daniel Yankovick that states that inherent biases and perceptions held by African Americans and whites make dialogue about racial issues strained.

These factors were taken into strong consideration in the development of the museum's programming, according to Harrod.

"Teachers learn that certain ways of presenting certain subject matter yield the best results," he says. "Our research showed that if we only showed the brutality — only the dehumanizing face of all of this and showed it in a highly dramatic, painful, poignant way — it might not serve our purpose of trying to engage people into doing something affirmative. It might alienate people who we want to get involved in the dialogue, people who we want to be part of the solution."

So what if people are offended as a result of experiencing the horrors of slavery? Does that make the center's mission any less effective?

"I'm not saying that we shouldn't disturb people a little bit," Harrod says. "We're not doing our jobs if they weren't."

From its inception, the center was committed to dispelling the widely held myth that whites exclusively rescued African Americans from slavery, Harrod says. The museum's success will be gauged by its ability to inspire and motivate individuals to be agents of change in society, he says.

The museum's programs, lectures and workshops will not shy away from controversial topics such as reparations for slavery.

"Slavery was supported by systems and conventions," Harrod says. "Inequalities today are supported by systems and inequalities. We have a distribution of wealth that dates back from eight to 10 generations. Yes, issues like reparations for African Americans ought to be discussed in the Freedom Center."

A promise on the doorstep
The Rev. Damon Lynch III says he isn't against the center itself but objects to some of the economic implications.

"The fact that the center represents a $110 million investment, two things could have happened," he says. "Number one, the money could have been used for rebuilding communities. Or number two, the center could have been built in one of the communities to spur economic growth and development in that community."

The facility's $110 million cost is a source of contention for many local activists, as is the invitation to President Bush to attend the dedication on Monday.

The Freedom Center should be in an inner-city community rather than on the riverfront, Lynch says.

"We know why it's on the river," he says. "It's because it's someone else's interest. Clearly, people in this city with power have an interest in riverfront development."

The center's placement speaks to the city's broader economic plan, not a symbolic escape route for the Underground Railroad, Lynch says.

"Geography really has nothing to do with whether or not this is going to be a symbolic institution that helps remind us of some things," he says. "The strength of it is what they say that it is."

Lynch says national leaders agree with this premise. Harry Belafonte, who was an early supporter of the Freedom Center, pulled his support from the organization after touring Over-the-Rhine with Lynch.

"National leaders that understand the crisis and issues that face the black community also understand that the Freedom Center does not represent any real change in this community nor any real sense of hope for the black nation, if the center is not going to engage itself in current struggle," Lynch says.

But Edwin Rigaud, president of the Freedom Center, says riverfront development wasn't a motivating factor in the selection process.

"I can tell you with all honesty within me, none of that occurred to me when developing this project," he says.

Rigaud says he worked with a team of local community and business leaders, academic consultants and national civil rights leaders to develop the project. He acknowledges some looked at the development as a national marketing opportunity but says his objective was to maintain the integrity of the Freedom Center.

The center is not a slavery museum but an educational institution that uses history as a backdrop, Rigaud says.

"We miss the boat on the contemporary mission if we accuse, blame, point fingers and scare the hell out of people," he says.

The mission, content and symbolism of the center's location challenges people to elevate community standards when dealing with discrimination issues of race, gender and sexual orientation, Harrod says.

"It takes a lot for a community to put this kind of a totem, this kind of a major symbol, on its front doorstep, and we have to live up to the high standard of that," he says. "If we don't, then it will be a major embarrassing contradiction." ©