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National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Courtesy of Freedom Center

The $110 million museum center opened to acclaim in 2004.

During the days of slavery in America, secrecy was paramount to the success of the Underground Railroad. Years later, this route has received its due recognition with the creation of an expansive monument celebrating its impact.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in August 2004, is a 158,000 square-foot, five-story building that cost $110 million to construct. The site considers itself a “museum of conscience,” as does the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The decision to build the Freedom Center in Cincinnati was due to the city’s proximity to the Ohio River. As a natural barrier between Southern slave states and Northern free ones, the river served as a de facto line to cross in order to achieve freedom during slavery. The Underground Railroad is the symbolic name given to the clandestine routes slaves took, with the help of free citizens, to escape slavery’s grasp.

The Freedom Center’s mission is to “reveal stories about freedom’s heroes” in order to encourage visitors to take steps towards freedom today. This message is conveyed through several exhibits that offer unique takes on the slavery experience, traveling the Underground Railroad and freedom in general. Brothers of the Borderland is a film offering recreations of abolitionists who help slaves in a thrilling flight towards freedom. Shown in an experiential theatre where elements such as fog are incorporated to create a more lifelike demonstration, portions of the film are narrated by Oprah Winfrey. ESCAPE! uses storytelling and hands-on activities to show the brave methods used to resist slavery, particularly during the period between 1830 and 1865. Another exhibit, From Slavery to Freedom, describes the long history of slavery in the Americas and provides details about the lives of the enslaved. Other notable exhibits include one celebrating individuals who helped participants on the Underground Railroad and their contemporary counterparts. The John Parker Library offers family history resources for those visitors searching for ancestors.

The most emotional exhibit for visitors will likely be The Slave Pen. Built in 1830, this two-story log house gives a chilling glimpse into the world of the slave trade. Used as a temporary holding area for men and women before they moved farther south for sale, the building essentially acted as a slave ship. Men were chained to the walls with shackles that allowed them limited movement and the close quarters led to the outbreak of disease. This powerful exhibition has become a sacred, integral piece of the museum’s collection; its unique, harrowing look into the lives of the enslaved resonates with all that experience it.

The Freedom Center takes pride in presenting its exhibit on modern-day slavery and human trafficking, which it says is the world’s first of its kind. The 4,000 square foot display titled Invisible: Slavery Today sheds light on common forms of exploitation such as forced labor, child slavery, and sex trafficking. With the breadth of emotionally wracking subject matter at hand, those behind the Freedom Center realized that there needed to be an area for visitors to digest what they just viewed. At the end of the museum tour is an area where patrons can express their thoughts and feelings about the issues they’ve just intimately confronted. This unique aspect of the Freedom Center helps visitors reflect with one another as well as participate in group discussions led by trained professionals.

During the 1800s, more than 100,000 enslaved people are estimated to have used the Underground Railroad as a path to freedom. The National Underground Freedom Center brings much-needed recognition to this unfortunate time in history. By honoring the legacy of these brave souls while shedding light on contemporary issues, the museum hopes to prevent these atrocities from transpiring in years ahead.

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