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National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Established August 2004
Location 50 E. Freedom Way Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
Type Public
Visitor figures 180,000 annual
Director Donald W. Murphy

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a museum in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio based on the history of the Underground Railroad. The Center also pays tribute to all efforts to "abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people." Billed as part of a new group of "museums of conscience," along with the Museum of Tolerance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum, the Center offers lessons on the struggle for freedom in the past, in the present, and for the future as it attempts to challenge visitors to contemplate the meaning of freedom in their own lives. Its location recognizes the significant role of Cincinnati, where thousands of slaves escaped to freedom by crossing the Ohio River, in the history of the Underground Railroad.


The structure

Main entrance to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

After ten years of planning and fundraising, the $110 million Freedom Center opened to the public on August 3, 2004; official opening ceremonies took place on August 23. The 158,000 square foot (15,000 m²) structure was designed by Boora Architects (design architect) of Portland, Oregon with Blackburn Architects (architect of record) of Indianapolis with three pavilions celebrating courage, cooperation and perseverance. The exterior features rough travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy on the east and west faces of the building, and copper panels on the north and south. According to one of its primary architects, the late Walter Blackburn, the building's "undulating quality" illustrates the fields and the river that escaping slaves crossed to reach freedom. First Lady Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, and Muhammad Ali attended the groundbreaking ceremony on June 17, 2002.

Slave pen

The Slave Pen, the principal artifact at the Freedom Center, was transported from its original location and reconstructed on the second floor of the Center

The center's principal artifact is a 21 by 30 foot (6 by 9 m), two-story log slave pen built in 1830 that was used to house slaves being shipped to auction. The structure was moved from a farm in Mason County, Kentucky and now dominates the second-floor atrium where visitors encounter it again and again while traversing the other exhibits. It can also be seen through the Center's large windows from the downtown street outside.

An original feature of the Slave Pen is this shackle ring in the second floor joist, used to secure male slaves

The pen was originally owned by Captain John Anderson, a Revolutionary War soldier. Slaves waiting to be transported from Dover, Kentucky to slave markets in Natchez, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana were imprisoned there for a few days or several months, waiting for favorable market conditions and higher selling prices. It has eight small windows, the original stone floor from a large chimney and fireplace, and a row of wrought iron rings (see photo at right) through which a central chain ran, tethering men on either side of the chain. Male slaves were held on the second floor, while women remained on the first floor and used the fireplace for cooking.

"The pen is powerful," says Carl B. Westmoreland, curator and senior adviser to the museum. "It has the feeling of hallowed ground. When people stand inside, they speak in whispers. It is a sacred place. I believe it is here to tell a story - the story of the internal slave trade to future generations." Visitors to the museum can walk through the holding pen and touch its walls. Taken from records kept by slave traders in the area who used the pen, the first names of some of the slaves believed to have been held in the pen are listed on a wooden slab in the pen's interior.

Westmoreland spent three and a half years uncovering the story of the slave jail. "We're just beginning to remember. There is a hidden history right below the surface, part of the unspoken vocabulary of the American historic landscape. It's nothing but a pile of logs, yet it is everything."

Other features

Other prominent features of the Center include:

  • The "Suite for Freedom" Theater where three animated films address the fragile nature of freedom throughout human history, particularly as related to the Underground Railroad and the institution of slavery in the United States.
  • The "ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers" presentation and interactive display about the Underground Railroad where school groups and families with young children are presented with choices on an imaginary escape attempt. The gallery features information about figures like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and orator Frederick Douglass.
  • The film, "Brothers of the Borderland," highlighting the story of the Underground Railroad in Ripley, Ohio along the Ohio River and the roles of conductors John Parker and Reverend John Rankin.
  • Information about the history of slavery and those who opposed it, including John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War.
  • "The Struggle Continues," an exhibit depicting the ongoing challenges confronted by African-Americans since the end of slavery, ongoing struggles for freedom in today's world, and ways that the Underground Railroad has inspired groups in India, Poland and South Africa.
  • The John Parker Library which houses a collection of multimedia materials about the Underground Railroad and freedom-related issues.
  • The FamilySearch Center where visitors can investigate their own roots.

The Freedom Center’s Executive Director and CEO, Donald W. Murphy, was previously the deputy director of the National Park Service.

Criticisms and Financial Troubles

  • In 2002 after acknowledging that the museum fell short of projected attendance figures and had continued a yearly decline in attendance, President Ed Rigaud said he anticipated losses of $2 million to $3 million a year. He told The Enquirer, though, that the center would not ask for additional public money to keep its books balanced. Critics still refer to that comment as the reason the Freedom Center should get no public money, even for construction.
  • After it opened, attendance reached a high of 205,944 in 2005 and has declined slightly since to around 162,000 last year. The center lost $5.5 million in its first 18 months of operation, prompting then-CEO John Pepper in 2006 to acknowledge for the first time that the Freedom Center would eventually need a $2 million to $3 million annual public subsidy to cover costs.
  • Despite these repeated statements that the center would not require public funding to continue operations the center does receive a hotly debated $500,000 annual operating subsidy and continues to seek further public funding to suplement losses incurred through construction debt and daily operations.
  • The organization’s most recent battle involving finances erupted this spring when it requested $3.75 million in state capital money – public dollars allocated every two years for construction projects across the state.
  • Since 2005, the Freedom Center has reduced operating expenses by about a third – from nearly $11 million in 2005 to roughly $7 million this year – primarily by eliminating more than a third of its employees; it now has 50 full time and 30 part time workers.
  • The Freedom Center’s overall budget was still in the red in 2006, according to its Form 990, a tax document that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file to provide information on their finances. However, its operating budget – which officials typically use when describing an organization’s financial health – recorded a surplus, mostly due to a fundraising campaign. The “Bridge to the Future” campaign raised $10 million, eliminating a significant portion of the debt and generating operating surpluses of $2.7 million in 2006 and around $500,000 in 2007.
  • It’s not atypical. It’s kind of representative of the museum world,” said Dennis Barrie, the former head of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, of the Freedom Center’s rocky first few years. Typically it takes that long for true attendance and revenue figures to flatten out, said Barrie, who also co-created the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the International Spy Museum. He is now working in Cleveland for Westlake Reed Leskosky, which is developing several more museums. Like many other museums though, he expects the Freedom Center would ultimately have to rely on public subsidies to cover costs.
  • The Freedom Center is now evaluating how to improve profits at its gift shop and restaurant space. It has recently approached developers for the neighboring Banks riverfront project, which plans to build two signature restaurants directly south of the Freedom Center. Donald Murphy (Freedom Center CEO) wants them to consider integrating the Freedom Center restaurant into their project instead.
  • The Ohio Underground Railroad Association, which operates many of the actual houses across the state that took part in the Underground Railroad, also took issue with the fact that the Freedom Center was getting public money and refused to move into a more affordable building located at a different site. In June 2007 Cathy Nelson (OURA founder) testified before a state Senate panel against restoring a two-year, $500,000 operating subsidy that the Freedom Center had been getting, suggesting the money should go to other sites. A Freedom Center spokesman (Paul Bernish), said the center is working hard to promote tourism at other Ohio Underground Railroad sites.


See also

External links

Coordinates: 39°05′52″N 84°30′41″W / 39.09790°N 84.51148°W / 39.09790; -84.51148



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