Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Thousands celebrate Freedom Center groundbreaking

By Kevin Aldridge kaldridge@enquirer.com
and Randy Tucker rtucker@enquirer.com

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They came by the thousands from across the country on a crisp June night to hear harsh lessons about America's slave history, drumbeats of change, messages of hope and hundreds of voices raised in songs of freedom.

Justine Dunlop and Deborah Pierson wave batter-powered 'candles' and sing "This Little Light of Mine" at the end of the ceremony.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Large crowd sings and waves 'candles' in final song.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        The shoreline of the Ohio River at Cincinnati once beckoned slaves to freedom in an abolitionist state. Monday night, it brought more than 5,000 people together for the groundbreaking of the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        “The heroic stories of the Underground Railroad are powerful reminders of the mission that all Americans share in promoting the values of freedom,” first lady Laura Bush told the crowd. “The new Freedom Center promises to be a national treasure.”

        The Freedom Center, opening in 2004, will be the largest museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad and the hub of a national network of more than 60 freedom station affiliates focused on research and programs that use history to promote unity.

        Against a backdrop of African dance and drum ensembles, the descendants of the abolitionists the Freedom Center celebrates ate together, laughed and sang Monday night.

First Lady Laura Bush speaks.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        A 700-member community choir retraced the route of fugitive slaves escaping across the Ohio River, followed by the symbolic lighting of freedom's flame by former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali and poignant messages from guest speakers, including the first lady.

        Ohio was a large point of entry for thousands of slaves who used the Underground Railroad, and many hope the Freedom Center's location here can serve as a modern day door to freedom from bigotry and racism.

        Cincinnati became the home of antislavery activist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose influential novel Uncle Tom's Cabin exposed the horrors of slavery.

        Ohio State Sen. Mark Mallory said Monday the center will change the landscape of Cincinnati.

        “But what it cannot do is change minds and change hearts,” he said. “That has to come from within. But the Freedom Center can be used as a tool to change hearts and minds.”

Muhammad Ali "spars" with Mayor Charlie Luken at Ali's urging during a Monday news conference.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Later, Ali 'lights' a ceremonial flame of freedom.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Richard Bennett of Westwood was among the thousands who witnessed the groundbreaking.

        “Hopefully this will bring some unity to our city,” said Mr. Bennett, 27. “I know I sound like a commercial, but that's what we could really use right now.”

        He was referring to continued racial tensions in Cincinnati stemming from the April 2001 riots and the call from some black groups for a boycott of the city until certain issues are resolved.

        Protesters urging a boycott attended the groundbreaking carrying signs and even shadowing Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken as he made his way through the crowd, divided almost evenly between African-Americans and whites.

        One female protester walked directly behind Mr. Luken while holding her hands revealing toy chains. On her back was written the word “SLAVE.”

        Bill Thoeny, 47, of Fort Wright, said he hoped the national attention that the Freedom Center brings to Cincinnati is enough to counter the negative publicity the city received nationally following the riots and boycott.

        “This is an historic event in Cincinnati,” said Mr. Thoeny, who attended the groundbreaking with his wife, Stephanie, and daughter, Grace. “Hopefully, it will bring national attention to Cincinnati in a positive way.”

Choir members march from both sides of the river and meet in the middle of Suspension Bridge, while a barge and riverboat with other singers pass under the bridge.
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
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        The riots created a public relations nightmare for the city and sparked a federal investigation of the Cincinnati Police Department — and helped highlight the need for the museum, Freedom Center officials said.

        “This event symbolizes the healing and reconciliation between the North and South, enslaved and free, past and future,” said Dr. Spencer Crew, executive director of the Freedom Center.

Lamont Golightly, 4, of East Walnut Hills, plays with his group, "The Bucket Boys."
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        The choir's symbolic journey across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Ohio on Monday night was the capstone of a day's worth of free public events that included a family festival, national celebrities, dignitaries, government officials and fireworks.

        The choir serenaded the crowd with spiritual and patriotic medleys that included songs such as “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “America the Beautiful.”

        The National Conference for Community and Justice — a human rights organization dedicated to fighting racism and bigotry — first proposed the center in 1994.

        The center is scheduled to open in mid-2004 between Vine and Walnut streets on the riverfront.

        It will commemorate the 19th-century history of the Underground Railroad — the difficult, dangerous escape routes used by as many as 100,000 fleeing slaves.

Brandy Richardson portrays a slave whose master drowned her children. She and Leslie Tennyson are with Medasi African Dance Theatre in Cincinnnati.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Earlier Monday, the Coca-Cola Co., a sponsor of the groundbreaking ceremony, announced a $1 million gift to the Freedom Center, bringing the total raised to more than $77 million of its $110 million goal. A portion of the donation will support the creation of a college intern program for African-American, Hispanic and Native American students to encourage careers in the museum profession.

        Last week, General Electric Co. also donated $1 million to the museum. The nation's largest supplier of electrical equipment also donated 10,000 battery powered candles that were handed out to those attending the groundbreaking.

        Construction and development of the Freedom Center building and development of exhibits will cost about $65 million, with the rest earmarked for start-up operations, programs and an endowment.

        Enquirer reporters Marilyn Bauer, Kristina Goetz, Michael Clark, Erica Solvig and Stephenie Steitzer contributed.

More Coverage:
- Thousands celebrate Freedom Center groundbreaking
First lady wants students to hear tales of freedom
Historian: Other sites may suffer
Lifted voices of choir put song in hearts
Symbol of flame brings home
Wanted: Any Underground Railroad items

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