Before the Civil War, the Ohio River meant freedom. Even though it was the primary water route for the still-thriving American slave trade, the river was also the border between the slave states of the South and the free states of the Northwest Territory. This attracted escaping slaves and abolitionists of all races to Cincinnati, as well as pro-slavery activists and economic interests. Secret hiding places and tunnels used for the Underground Railroad can still be found throughout the region.
So it is only fitting that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is now located on the banks of this river. Built in 2004, this striking curvilinear museum explores the history of slavery in the United States and the difficult path towards freedom. The museum’s three pavilions trace African-American history from the beginnings of the triangular trade to the present, concentrating on the events through the Reconstruction era. The exhibits take local connections and put them in a national scope, examining many facets of the issues of slavery, racism, and freedom. There is even a focus on including the roles of other minority groups such as women and Native Americans.
Historical displays, artifacts, public artwork, interpreters, and interactive exhibits bring to life the everyday existence of enslaved people, and the details of the Underground Railroad escape route. Squeeze yourself all the way inside the tiny packing crate one runaway shipped himself to freedom in, if you dare. You can also sit inside an authentic slave pen, try to ‘pick-your-own-escape-route’ with the help of a computerized guide, or re-search modern-day slavery and racism, and record your reactions.
The free and easy-to-use audio guide (narrated by Vanessa Williams and Angela Bassett, just two of the celebrity names you’ll spot throughout the museum) helps direct your tour through the many rooms and theaters. Two additional themed audio guides are also available, one for children and one about the role of women. On weekdays, it is easy to discreetly tag along with one of the school group tours as well. Give yourself a couple of hours to make your way through the whole museum, especially if there is a special exhibit open. Lunch can be found at the North Star Café on the first floor, and the gift shop has an impressive collection of books and films to continue the education.
Don’t let the sensitive nature of this chapter of American history stop you from visiting this impressive museum. The Freedom Center does a great job of emphasizing the “freedom heroes” and the success stories, managing to find inspiration and hope rather than accusation or despair. The exhibits are understand-able for all ages and consciously connected to modern day visitors and contemporary concerns and lives.
– Louise Sharrow