Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Historian: Other sites may suffer

By Michael D. Clark mclark@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        On the same day ground was broken for Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an African-American history expert and former consultant for the center said he has concerns about the focus of the institution.

        Charles Blockson, a scholar in African-American history at Temple University in Philadelphia, said he fears the nation's first museum dedicated to the 19th-century abolitionist movement is being created at the expense of hundreds of smaller historical Underground Railroad sites around the nation.

        “All the money seems to be filtering to Cincinnati,” said Mr. Blockson, who chaired the U.S. Interior Department's national Underground Railroad advisory committee in the early 1990s.

        “I'm not knocking the Freedom Center or its site. But you are going to neglect the other important sites in Ohio and other states,” he said.

        Mr. Blockson said the Freedom Center's fund raising, which is largely from private sources, also may lead to an emphasis on “commercialism” of the center — as a tourist destination or as a symbol of improved race relations in Cincinnati.

        He said he would be more enthusiastic if the Freedom Center were to serve as a distributor of funds for existing sites of the Underground Railroad, such as the John Rankin and John P. Parker houses in Ripley, Ohio.

        But, said Freedom Center President Ed Rigaud, supporting existing historical sites already is one of the center's missions.

        The Freedom Center's Web site includes links to other Underground Railroad locations — a feature that will be expanded, Mr. Rigaud said.

        “We are also creating "Freedom Stations.' There are 14 now and there will be 200 when we open. These will connect us directly with historical sites and colleges,” Mr. Rigaud said.

        The Freedom Stations program will use social service agencies, research libraries and other organizations as affiliates across the country.

        Spencer Crew, executive director and chief executive officer of the Freedom Center, said historical sites can apply for money from an annual $2.5 million federal grant program.

        “It's absolutely not true that we will exist at the expense of other historical sites,” Mr. Rigaud said.


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