Going Underground

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By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004

Sometime in August 1856, Addison White made a dead-of-the-night break from the Kentucky plantation where he was enslaved, crossed the Ohio River with slaveholders in pursuit and was eventually liberated when sympathetic folks in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, bought his freedom. The story of this breathless flight and others like it taken by thousands of African Americans in the days of slavery has been tucked in the pages of history textbooks for the past century and a half.

Now the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which held its grand opening in Cincinnati on Tuesday, makes details of the escapes and just about every other imaginable aspect of slavery in the United States accessible to the broad public. Colloquially known as the Underground Railroad Museum, it's a state-of-the-art facility that uses videos, photographs, recordings and other contemporary techniques to shed light on the antebellum era.

"Underground Railroad" refers to the network of people who helped about 100,000 slaves flee forced servitude in the South for freedom in the northern states and Canada. For the 95 percent of us whose high school or college curriculum breezed over this chapter of history, the center offers a chance for a total immersion course.

Anyone curious about the events that helped shape this country would be advised to hop a plane from D.C. for the one-hour flight, jump in a car for the eight-hour drive or find some other way to get to Cincinnati for a tour.

The museum was designed by Indianapolis architect Walter Blackburn, who was the grandson of slaves. It's perched on the edge of downtown Cincinnati, a couple of hundred yards from the banks of the Ohio River, which marked the dividing line between the South and the North. The $110 million center -- constructed with a mix of public and private funds, including donations from Oprah Winfrey and actors Danny Glover and Angela Bassett -- is composed of three pavilions made of square-based cylinders. An imposing five-story silo connects the three wings.

While Cincinnati has been marred in recent years by racial tension, it was chosen as the location in part because it lies in the middle of the route slaves took to freedom. Views of the river, which slaves had to cross, sets the mood for a tour of the center. Two hours is plenty for casual visitors to see the highlights. But for more curious students of the slavery era, there is easily enough here to capture attention for a full day. I took two self-guided tours of the museum, including a 1 1/2-hour walk-through one afternoon and another more detailed four-hour close-up look the next day.

The displays, spread over two spacious floors, are as absorbing as they are instructive. A logical place to start is by viewing "Brothers of the Borderland," a Winfrey-narrated mini-movie that focuses on the fictional flight one woman took from slavery. In spite of a made-for-television feel, it gives an emotional face to the decisions and dangerous actions taken by slaves and the free people who assisted them.

Farther along is a room of placards and recordings offering biographical sketches of some of those active in the Underground Railroad. Familiar names -- such as Sojourner Truth, who fled slavery in New York in 1828 and became one of the best-known abolitionist orators -- are portrayed alongside lesser-known figures like White. The Rev. John Rankin, John Brown and other whites active in the Underground Railroad are also profiled.

"This was a movement of people of color as well as people of conscience," one placard explains.

The scope of the museum reaches far beyond the sagas of escapees, though. Displays cover various aspects of the history and legacy of slavery in the Americas. Besides a museum, it's a learning institution, civil rights center and library in which African Americans can trace their genealogy.

On the same floor as the theater where the film is shown is the museum's centerpiece: a slave pen, a two-story hewn-log house that Kentucky slave trader John Anderson used to hold slaves in the 1830s. The building, one of the few historical artifacts on display, was donated to the museum by the owner of the land on which it sat. Dismantled and rebuilt here, it's a hallowed place that reduces visitors to a hush.

Upstairs is "From Slavery to Freedom," a vivid, well-curated exhibit that starts with details of the capture of unsuspecting victims in Sierra Leone and other countries along Africa's Gold Coast, includes timelines and facts about the importance of slavery to the U.S. economy and climaxes with an account of the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War.

In the museum's last pavilion, an eerie display of oversize photographs depicts cross burnings, scenes of genocide and other forms of racism that African Americans and others have faced since the end of slavery. A room at the end is set aside for visitors to discuss what they have seen.

"Unlike most other museums, we encourage people to talk here," said John Burton, a retired Cincinnatian who volunteers as a docent. "There's some powerful stuff here, and it's useful for people to be able to express their feelings about it."

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (50 E. Freedom Way) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for children ages 6 to 12. Info: 877-648-4838, www.freedomcenter.org. Northwest offers flights from BWI to Cincinnati starting at $201 round trip, with restrictions.

Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section chat on www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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