Cover Story: What I Saw at the Freedom Center

Experience is sobering and almost overwhelming

Cameron Knight

Aminah Robinson's "Journeys" tells of travels that range from Africa to Puerto Rico and Israel to Georgia.

I've walked through the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center twice, once on an impromptu tour with an acquaintance who works there and a second time just before it opened in early August, when media were ushered through the exhibits.

I went with a "convince me" attitude, and I have to admit I came away more impressed than I'd expected. It's a sobering place, almost overwhelming as you tour the seven distinct areas.

The Slave Pen is a two-story 1830 structure came from a farm in Maysville, Ky., where it was once owned by a known slave trader. Meticulously reconstructed in the Freedom Center's entrance hall, the pen is a stark reminder of how victims of slavery were treated like cattle. The names of some of them are carved in rough-hewn pieces of wood, adding a harsh, personal element to the building's sanitized presence. It's surrounded by exhibits that put Anderson and the slave trade in context.

"We don't see (the pen) as an object to cast blame but one to bring clarity," says local historian Carl Westmoreland, an adviser to the Freedom Center. "We see it as a tool that can be used for the young men at 13th and Vine or Auburn and Dorchester, that if my great-grandfather can go through a place like this you can go to school."

Another exhibit, Escape!

Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad, uses multimedia and hands-on displays to enlighten children ages 8-13 about tough choices made by American slaves in the mid-19th century. That exhibit flows into an almost overwhelming environmental theater for Brothers of the Borderland, a film introduced by Oprah Winfrey that puts the viewer in the middle of what it was like to cross the river in an escape attempt in the 1850s.

The most museum-like (and information-heavy) portion of the Freedom Center is From Slavery to Freedom, which offers displays that help visitors understand how slavery evolved in a nation established by the Declaration of Independence and how the Underground Railroad began.

Two points in this exhibit especially captured my attention in their use of art to convey a powerful message. The first is a darkened circular room centered with a glowing glass column filled with trade beads and cowrie shells representing the millions of people who survived slavery.

The dark stone walls surrounding the column are carved with the names of castles where slaves were held on the African coast before being shipped to America, in addition to the ironic names of some of the ships used for the transportation. A plaque on the wall says, "We grieve for the victims of the middle passage; we honor the sacrifice and suffering of the enslaved; we celebrate those who overcame slavery to create new lives."

At another point in From Slavery to Freedom is a sculpture inspired by Nat Turner's Rebellion, a simple assemblage of chains with ankle shackles. They rise skyward with the shackles wide open, almost like animals gasping for air or hands reaching for the stars. It's shocking to see this positive message conveyed by such a hated device, a reminder that art evokes responses often more emotional than intellectual.

Such affecting pieces are found throughout the Freedom Center, such as Aminah Robinson's 22-by-30 foot fabric assemblage "Journeys," a mural of her life experience based on trips to Africa, Puerto Rico, Israel and points in the U.S., including her family's ancestral home on Sapelo Island, Ga. Elsewhere are moving works by Cincinnati painter Brian Joiner and sculptor Karen Heyl, whose studio on the ground floor of the Pendleton Center is an attraction on Final Fridays in Over-the-Rhine.

What moves the Freedom Center beyond a museum to its most valuable function — a center of learning — are three final exhibition areas. The Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes presents individuals, large and small, known and unknown, who have made a difference. With engaging stylized portraits and effective brief audio, these people offer vivid examples of how individuals can make a difference.

Next is The Struggle Continues, documenting freedom movements from the past century — civil rights in America and democracy demonstrations in China, for example — down to the present moment, through feeds of current television news reports about abuses of freedom in nations around the world today.

The final area, Reflect, Respond, Resolve, invites visitors to engage in individual contemplation and group conversations about experiences just encountered. This area offers computerized kiosks where visitors can answer difficult questions about situations and beliefs, such as "Should people obey the law without exception?"

Answers aren't right or wrong, simply choices. When you respond, you can see your answer in the context of answers from other visitors from around America.

A second set of kiosks present video scenarios with points in which the viewer decides what he or she would do. I explored a difficult conversation between a group of teenage girls about the choice of an African-American friend to wear a shirt proclaiming, "African by ancestry — American by enslavement." Again, no right answers, but a chance to explore how you might handle such a situation.

That kind of approach suggests that the Freedom Center can have an impact on our community that goes beyond mere historic education. I hope that area residents, so often vexed by racial issues, come to see the center as an expression of desire to understand and learn from these tough situations. I hope it shows outsiders that Cincinnati is willing to address these divisive issues head-on.

My biggest reservation about the Freedom Center is that there are almost too many things to see and too much information to digest in one visit. That's both good and bad.

People could be moved to visit repeatedly. No one will drop in for an hour, then say, "I've done that."

The Newport Aquarium has suffered from that syndrome, which leads to one-time visits. Not so for the Freedom Center, where you could easily spend the better part of a day wandering through exhibits, reading about slavery and freedom, having dialogue and being provoked to think. In fact, to fully absorb all the center offers you'd need the better part of two days.

But I fear not everyone will do that. Even if you can commit that much time, it's not inexpensive — admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students with ID and seniors and $8 for children 6-12.

The Freedom Center offers a multitude of first-class educational experiences, very much on a par with our nation's best museums, such as the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C. But admission to those facilities is free.

The very people who might benefit most from the Freedom Center could be unable to gain admission. That's a shame, because they'd learn a lot. ©

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