Hero's Journey

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center celebrates 10 years with newfound financial support and a bold vision for the future

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click to enlarge Freedom Center President Clarence G. “C.G.” Newsome stands in front of The Solomon Northup Tour
Freedom Center President Clarence G. “C.G.” Newsome stands in front of The Solomon Northup Tour


he National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has seen its ups and downs during its now decade-long existence on Cincinnati’s riverfront. Although the project originally promised to break the city’s conservative reputation, it quickly faced problems with disappointing attendance and financing.

Within the past two years the Freedom Center even came close to closing its doors after seeing attendance and financial struggles while a growing number of locals aired frustrations over tens of millions of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars deployed first to support the project then keep the museum open.

Despite its best efforts to cut its budget from $12.5 million in 2004 to $4.6 million in 2011 and reduce the full-time workforce from 120 to 34, the Center was on the cusp of falling off the financial deep end. But thanks to donor bailouts and a merger with the Cincinnati Museum Center, it has revived itself and is making headway for the future.

Leaders at the Freedom Center see a silver lining ahead in 2014 as the museum celebrates its 10-year anniversary with a new president, a revised budget, a growing number of national and international partnerships and big plans for the future.

Six months ago, the Freedom Center announced Clarence G. “C.G.” Newsome as its new president. As a history and religious scholar, Newsome accepted the position after admiring the mission and work of the Freedom Center from afar.

Stepping in right before the 10th anniversary, Newsome was excited about the opportunity to grow and develop the organization while looking ahead to a brighter next 10 years. He acknowledges the Freedom Center’s initially flawed business plan and says he is positively revisiting the organization’s challenges to better prepare for the years ahead. Newsome will start with the overly hopeful attendance numbers that marred the center’s early years.

“The original revenue model factored in attendance too much and initially forecasted attendance for the Freedom Center too high,” Newsome admits.

Peaking at about 200,000 attendees in its first full year, the number has since leveled off to about 110,000 annually. Membership numbers have declined since opening, but with the new revenue model the Center no longer measures its success solely by its attendance.

Although attendance increased 5 percent last year to 120,000, the museum will rely less on such growth in the future thanks to an influx of philanthropy — the Center’s endowment is more than $6.5 million and has increased 400 percent over the past two years.

Newsome also attributes lower initial attendance to the lack of circulating exhibits upon opening.

“We originally didn’t have changing exhibits to give our local guests a reason to come back regularly,” he says.

Now the Freedom Center works hard to bring popular, new exhibits to its museum walls, including the current And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, which features 85 story quilts from the Women of Color Quilters Network, narrating 400 years of African-American history.

Another issue Newsome believes affected initial revenue is the promotion of the Freedom Center as a museum. He says it is better defined as an educational center with freedom as its primary subject and strong global outreach.

“We have become an educational center focused on unshackling the capacity of people to participate in freeing themselves and others through self-determination, financial self-sufficiency, the responsible exercise of human rights and active engagement in building inclusive democratic societies and free market economies,” Newsome says.

When the Freedom Center first opened its doors in 2004, The Banks was still several years away from becoming the booming attraction it is today. Ongoing construction delays only served to hurt the Center, which was isolated between the two stadiums in what resembled an ongoing construction zone for years. As Cincinnatians continue to familiarize themselves with the area and The Banks continues to grow, the Freedom Center looks forward to increasing its presence and attracting more foot traffic to its exhibits and educational efforts.

The Freedom Center put its past revenue-challenged model behind it by merging with the Cincinnati Museum Center in 2012 and balancing its budget at the end of the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

“Together we’ve got a terrific group of people who are committed to education and inspiring our community and our world,” Newsome says.

The Freedom Center ended its past fiscal year with a surplus. The new foundation has increased endowment, and the merger with the Museum Center resulted in $1.5 million in savings.

Outside groups, including the Mayerson Jewish Community Center, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, Northern Kentucky University, local churches and primary/secondary schools, are providing local support and looking to partner with the Center. Its leaders believe that the community will find increased reasons to want to visit and donate to the Freedom Center during upcoming

10-year anniversary celebrations and new programs kicking off later this summer. 

The Freedom Center’s Relevance to Cincinnati

The Freedom Center is proud of its historical role in Cincinnati heritage. The city served a vital role in the Underground Railroad and many individuals escaping slavery traveled through the very sacred ground where the Freedom Center sits today. As a crossroads of commerce between Southern and Northern states, Cincinnati’s role left behind rich history containing fascinating, heroic stories of everyday people.

Through books, artwork, programs and new exhibits, the Freedom Center provides such important connections between Cincinnati and human-rights movements in U.S. history.

An example of these efforts is through The Solomon Northup Tour, which Freedom Center historians created to bring to life the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave. The tour humanizes the true slavery story of Solomon Northup and the role abolitionists played in helping him regain his freedom while intertwining the relevance of the movie and local ties of slavery here in Cincinnati.

The relationship to the Northup story even led the Freedom Center’s Luke Blocher to speak on a panel with the movie’s director, Steve McQueen, in Los Angeles.

The story recreates the original narrative Northup published in 1853 after escaping from slavery. Hailed as one of the best depictions of slave life in antebellum America, the film tells the tale of Northup, a literate and skilled violinist, born a free man of color in New York who was tricked and kidnapped into slavery. Northup spends 12 years of his life enslaved in the South, never giving up hope in regaining his freedom. The movie depicts brutal images of the cruel and violent treatment of slaves that is hard to watch, yet important in understanding the unjust realities of slavery.

The Freedom Center used the story of Northup to educate and inspire the public through his narrative. The self-guided tour consists of seven stops throughout the museum with an optional mobile tour to provide a more in-depth, historical perspective of the journey. The presence of 12 Years a Slave is felt throughout the tour with images from the film, and the relevance of Northup’s story in Cincinnati’s history is heavily felt throughout the entire museum. The movie was created about one man’s story of slavery, but the Freedom Center reminds us that it represents millions of similar stories.

Perhaps the biggest realization of Cincinnati’s role in slavery is experienced on the first stop of the tour as visitors look out the vast, floor-to-ceiling windows. The overwhelming view looks out onto the Ohio River and across to the then-slave holding state of Kentucky. The view evokes a disturbing realization that only 175 yards of water separated a world between slavery and freedom.

In 1841, the year Northup was kidnapped, Cincinnati was battling against its own internal evils of slavery. Although by law Ohio was a free state, the close proximity of neighboring Kentucky meant that slavery flourished in its borders.

At the stop, visitors are left to view the Kentucky-owned Ohio River, which became a primary water route to major slave markets — carrying goods to the South, even serving as a means for slave ships to transport women, children and men like Northup. But while the controversy of slavery was happening within our own backyard, Cincinnati was also becoming a destination on the Underground Railroad. The soil that the Freedom Center was built on is the very spot where slaves crossed their way to freedom as abolitionists helped runaway slaves escape to the North. Today the people behind the Freedom Center pride themselves as modern day abolitionists, continuing to pass along the stories of freedom to educate today’s audience.

The tour reminds visitors that the Hollywood movie isn’t fiction-based, but is the true story of an enslaved man, putting into context what thousands of other black slaves experienced in America.

Other local ties include the John W. Anderson slave pen, similar to the one Northup found himself chained inside, and the parallel stories of 12 Years A Slave character Patsey and local slave heroine Margret Garner.

The John W. Anderson slave pen was found only one hour east of Cincinnati in Germantown, Ky., and now sits in the Freedom Center, allowing visitors to stand inside its powerful presence knowing it once housed slaves like Northup in our own community. Through the Margret Garner painting, visitors can put into context the devastating effects sexual abuse had on enslaved women like Patsey from the film. Garner’s true story of attempted escape from Richwood, Ky., by foot across the frozen Ohio River tells the incredible tale of her desperate and tragic measures to become free, including the act of killing her youngest daughter rather than seeing her raised in slavery when they were recaptured.

Slavery Today

The many stops along the tour tell the inspiring tale of Northup’s crusade to freedom and how it relates to similar stories here in Cincinnati. But perhaps the most impacting stop on the tour is the final exhibit, Invisible: Slavery Today. The tour ends with a thought-provoking look at how Northup’s story and 12 Years A Slave is relevant to today. The large exhibit on modern day slavery showcases the Freedom Center’s fight to end modern slavery and reveal stories of freedom’s present-day heroes.

“We help people understand slavery today by connecting it to the historic slavery they are more familiar with,” says Blocher, the Freedom Center’s director of strategic initiatives.

Although the slavery has been outlawed in the U.S. for 150 years, the concept certainly hasn’t ended — here and in other places around the world. An estimated 27 million people are currently enslaved worldwide, which is more than any other time in human history.

“Slavery isn’t just is the past,” says historian Richard Cooper, who will release a book titled Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad (Images of America) March 10. “It’s here right now.”

Cooper’s book explores the city’s economic ties to the slave South and the courageous individuals who made the Queen City a primary destination of the Underground Railroad.

“Modern slavery” is recognized in five forms, including forced labor, bonded labor, sex slavery, child slavery and domestic servitude.

Sex slavery, or more widely known as human trafficking, refers to the business of trading people as commodities. This bears similarity to the transatlantic and internal slave trade in the United States before 1865. Invisible: Slavery Today explains the relevance of historic slavery to the fight against modern day slavery to better inform and raise awareness.

The Cleveland-based Image Foundation found that from June 1 to Aug. 31, 2013, more than 2,695 advertisements for commercial sex existed within the Cincinnati area, representing a total of 602 distinctive phone numbers and 104 distinct area codes within the three-month time period.

According to the report, the highest occurring areas of advertisements were found in Sharonville, downtown Cincinnati, Springdale, Northgate, Norwood, Fairfield, Harrison and Western Hills, as well as Batesville, Ind., and Covington and Newport, Ky.

“We know human trafficking is occurring within our region because the local hotline, first established in 2012, is receiving referrals from law enforcements and citizens,” Blocher says.

What’s hard to pinpoint, however, are the exact numbers.

“While this is an ancient crime, it is one we are only recently seeing as what it really is — modern slavery,” Bocher continues.

Located only a few short hours north, Toledo is ranked as the fourth-highest city for human trafficking in the country, according to the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission. Taking into consideration the smaller population compared to that of the other top three cities, the report said Toledo must be considered the per capita leader of the nation for such activities.

The Freedom Center is taking a leading role in educating the public about an intensely painful issue that many people don’t know exists.

“Just as importantly, we tell the story of abolitionists then and now to empower each of us with the knowledge that we can end slavery,” Blocher says.

Because of its invisible nature and ever-changing forms, it’s hard to see and understand the presence of slavery today or to believe the staggering number of men, women and children trapped within it.

“We’ve worked hard to establish a credible leadership role in the modern anti-slavery movement, and it is all due to the incredible power of the stories of the Underground Railroad,” Blocher says.

One way to combat contemporary forms of slavery is through public awareness, which the Freedom Center is accomplishing through a new global network of abolitionists. The Center has made major strides in combatting modern slavery within the last two years by working with national and international partnerships in the State Department, along with other interested parties such as Google, Fox Searchlight Pictures (which produced 12 Years A Slave) and the group Historians Against Slavery.

The Freedom Center’s original documentary film Journey to Freedom depicts a timeline of slavery, from the 1853 story of Northup to modern-day Cambodia, which helps bridge the gap between the notions of historic slavery to the reality of modern-day slavery. The film’s powerful visual has drawn international attention and was the centerpiece of more than 50 events at U.S. embassies around the world.

“The Freedom Center is unique among the national organizations committed to fighting modern slavery because of our global approach to ending slavery and our role as an educational center,” Blocher says.

A major concluding section of the exhibit is devoted to the optimisitc anti-slavery activities underway around the world, especially by the Freedom Center’s partners: Free the Slaves, Goodweave, International Justice Mission and Polaris Project.

“I think the success we’ve had in this work is only a preview of what is to come for the Freedom Center in many areas,” Blocher says.

Plans for the Future

Over the past 10 years, the Freedom Center has undergone its own journey in overcoming adversity. The hopeful and inspiring initiatives supported within its mission are executed through education efforts that continue to propel the organization forward — with big plans for the future.

Several special programs will be announced later this summer in celebration of the Freedom Center’s 10-year anniversary. Its leaders plan to continue building upon the strong financial foundation from the merger by seeking new sponsorships and endowment gifts along with additional smaller gifts through memberships and small donations.

Later this year the Freedom Center will launch Freedom Center Presents, a theater programming series designed to expand Cincinnati’s cultural offerings. The series will include a community theater season, film, musical presentations and national powerhouse lectures. It will serve as an opportunity for Cincinnati residents to bond over the same tenets of courage and perseverance demonstrated in the Underground Railroad.

The Center plans to refresh its exhibits and establish a more active presence at The Banks. And, of course, it will continue to expand its mission through educational outreach, promoting and advocating for freedom through work on modern day slavery and economic empowerment.

“The very fact that the Freedom Center was built against many odds speaks to a city that can get things accomplished,” says Newsome, president of the Freedom Center. “As the Freedom Center continues to build strategic national and international partnerships, we will always shine a positive light back on our city, our hometown, like the light of the flame that looks south toward the river and serves as a beacon of hope for all people on a quest to be free.” ©

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