A new museum in Cincinnati, Ohio is encouraging visitors to confront some very unpleasant parts of America's history. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center commemorates the journey from slavery to freedom in the mid 1800s. But it also reminds visitors there's still a ways to go before all people will truly be free.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center sits on the banks of the Ohio River - the dividing line, in the 1800's, between the free and slave states. The museum consists of three graceful buildings connected by curved walkways. The architect planned the twists and turns to show that the road to freedom was never a straight path. The road many slaves took to freedom was known as the Underground Railroad. It was not an actual railroad, but a group of people, known as conductors, who offered escaping slaves shelter, clothing, food and directions to the next safe house as they headed north.
Museum visitors are immediately confronted with the reality of what the slaves were running from, in the form of a two story log cabin-style structure, neat and clean, but stark. In the mid 1800's this building, from Mason County, Kentucky, held slaves waiting to be traded across the country. Sometimes as many as 40 people were crowded into the 21 by 9 meter space. You can see the iron screws and hooks on the beams used to chain the male slaves so they wouldn't escape.
"The history and the lives and the stories of people we don't even know their names," says museum visitor Catherine Cornish.
She visited the Freedom Center shortly after it opened last month. As she walked through the slave pen, she couldn't help thinking about what went on in this place more than a century ago.
"People are referred to as 'one Negro child,' 'one Negro woman,' and we just have so much we take for granted today in terms of birth records and our history in the census and who we are," Ms. Cornish adds. "It's sort of like grieving for people you don't know and you don't even know how many, so that what makes it overwhelming."
"Overwhelming" is the word used by many people to describe their museum experience. Marcel Howard says it was hard to be face to face with some of the things his ancestors may have experienced.
"Seeing all the trials and tribulations that we had to go through and just knowing that we really didn't have a chance when we got over here," he notes. "We basically just had to do and be exactly what another society wanted us to do and we didn't have our own thoughts and our own beliefs."
Mr. Howard says he can relate some of what he saw in the museum to events happening around the world today. He says the struggle for freedom still has a long way to go.
The center offers a number of films for both adults and children describing the history of slavery and how people fought against it. Other exhibits commemorate everyday freedom heroes, from the founder of modern India, Mohandis Gandhi, and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to a Cincinnati minister who frequently was arrested for civil disobedience. A large gray wall leads visitors to a recreation of the Berlin Wall. After passing through it, they enter a tunnel with dismal images of slavery flashing across the walls, but with hopeful pictures at the end. Some visitors are so affected by what they've seen they want to talk about it right away and so the final stop at the museum is The Dialog Zone.
The Center's Kathy McDaniels Wilson describes the Dialog Zone as a place where people can talk freely about what they've experienced.
"I think a lot of the material here is extremely thought-provoking," she says. "The discussions vary. Individuals have talked about their own interpersonal process to overcome racism, people have talked about having a real spiritual connection being here in this museum space, it was a positive experience but feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the material here."
Ms. McDaniels Wilson says her hope is that visitors will not only embrace their own views, but those of others who are different from them.
"That they will use the space to seek clarification of issues, or thoughts that they've been holding on to for a long time," she says. "I hope that they will learn to listen adequately and that they will perhaps begin to think about rebuilding, trusting relationships with others that they might not have thought about previously."
The Freedom Center founders and staff describe it as more than a museum. Executive Director Spencer Crew says it's designed to be an institution of conscience, a catalyst for social activism, similar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
"Places that are talking about civic engagement, really talking about personal involvement in the world in which we live in and taking steps to make that world safer, to make that world better," explains Mr. Crew.
Mr. Crew says the struggle for freedom still goes on as people fight what he calls "contemporary slavery" around the world.
"People who are unable to attain the kinds of opportunities and the possibilities that they'd like to obtain to have a good life," he adds. "So it can be sex trafficking, it can be forced labor, it can be illiteracy, hunger, I mean all these are modern day slavery issues that mix together to keep people in poverty, to keep people from having a level of existence that is reasonable."
Spencer Crew says the Center is not a passive place where people simply take information in and do nothing with it. He wants visitors to take action once they leave the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. He wants them to be modern day freedom conductors.