By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - In amassing nearly $100 million, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center also has amassed something additional: resentment.
People who run smaller Underground Railroad historic sites say the Cincinnati riverfront museum and education center, set to open in August, has gobbled up scarce government and private money.
The animosity "stems from the sense that there's a limited pool of resources and the Freedom Center's got very strong supporters, particularly in Congress," said Robert Forbes, associate director of Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
The Freedom Center and its defenders say: wait. When the museum opens, it will be a windfall for Underground Railroad sites around the country.
"I think the Freedom Center has created a new day for Underground Railroad projects," said the center's spokesman, Ernest "Tahlib" Britton. "This new attention is going to bring new dollars that's going to benefit all institutions."
Britton said the center went to previously untapped corporate and private sources and took nothing from any other sites.
Forbes says it is a mistake to think that money for Underground Railroad sites is a zero-sum game. Instead, as the Freedom Center shines a national light on the subject, other sites likely will get additional attention themselves.
As for the Freedom Center's prowess in getting federal money, it makes no apologies. It has a devoted congressional delegation, and it has had to compete for grants.
"Competition promotes excellence," Britton said. "We've participated in that process, and yes, we've done well in that process."
Grants go its way
The Freedom Center got $16 million for its construction, courtesy largely of Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Rob Portman, who chairs the House Republican Leadership.
It has received $2 of every $3 spent in a special program created to start Underground Railroad education programs, according to figures from the Department of Education.
While the Freedom Center has thrived, a separate National Park Service program called the Network to Freedom has seen its budget dwindle and its grant money eliminated entirely.
The Freedom Center has raised $100 million at a time when other museums, including grand ones like Detroit's Museum of African American History and tiny ones like the dozens of Underground Railroad museums around the country, struggle to stay open with all-volunteer staffs.
"So far, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has had virtually no impact on Underground Railroad research and interpretation," said Christopher Densmore, an Underground Railroad expert in Pennsylvania and adviser to an Underground Railroad site in Kennett Square, Pa. "Some have felt that the funding going to the center is at the expense of supporting of more active local programs."
"I'm trying to think of a way to say this," said Anthony Cohen, executive director of the Manere Foundation, a Maryland-based Underground Railroad group restoring a plantation. "I'm unaware of what the Freedom Center is doing with the money they've gotten. I hope it's something positive."
An Albany, N.Y., group that had planned to apply for the federal education department's Underground Railroad grant dropped out after reading the grant directions. It had hoped to get about $100,000 to restore buildings, among other things.
"I have to admit when we read them, it appeared as if it had been written for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center," said Mary Stewart, co-founder of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capitol Region.
She said she didn't blame the Freedom Center, which has given her technical help. Under the 1998 law creating the grant program - sponsored by DeWine - the applicant must show that its private donations are four times what it gets from government. The applicant must submit a statement showing whether it will establish a network of satellite centers across the nation, something few small operations envision.
DeWine said he had heard those same complaints about the education department's Underground Railroad grant program, which has netted the Freedom Center $6.3 million since 1999.
Officials from other museums dedicated to black history suggested that the Freedom Center may be a scapegoat during a difficult fund-raising period for museums.
"Everybody's struggling," said Habeebah Muhammed of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum here that specializes in black history. "I haven't heard about anyone getting zillions of dollars."
At Detroit's 7-year-old Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, fund raising is down, and the museum relies on the city to pay about a third of its operating budget.
"For cultural institutions across the country, it's a difficult time," spokesman Raymond Tate said. But he said the Freedom Center is not the cause of those tough times.
Portman, a Terrace Park Republican, said the Freedom Center has been working hard to help history tourism programs in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia.
"The Freedom Center is more than a Cincinnati treasure. It is a national treasure. It has been active in almost every part of the country where Underground Railroad sites are present," he said.
Before and during the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was a secretive network of houses, barns, or forest clearings slaves used to escape to freedom. The Ohio River was one of the boundaries between slave and free states, and Cincinnati was a major station on the railroad.
But because the story of the Underground Railroad can't be told in one spot, the money needs to be spread out, Manere's Cohen said.
Clermont County has 22 federally recognized sites, the most in the country.
Program in jeopardy
June Creager, executive director of Clermont County Convention and Visitors Bureau, went to Washington to lobby for more money for the National Park Service program that helps determine the authenticity of potential Underground Railroad sites. It is called the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
"It's kind of like, 'My grandmother was an Indian princess. My house was an Underground Railroad site,'" Creager said. The park service program helps document whether that's true or not.
Network to Freedom's backers say its diminishing money jeopardizes the program's existence. Without grants, towns can't do their research, can't establish they are part of the railroad, and can't attract tourists.
DeWine is fighting to boost the budget for that program, sending a letter to his Senate colleagues seeking $1.5 million above the $482,000 it would get this year.
At the Levi Coffin House in Fountain City, Ind., board member Saundra Jackson said she expects Freedom Center visitors will be inspired "to go to an actual site where Underground Railroad stories were happening." The Coffin house served as a station where slaves took cover behind secret doors hidden by beds.
Jerry Gore, who helped create an Underground Railroad museum in Maysville, Ky., said this is not the time for the government to be cutting Underground Railroad money.
"This is not an incident in American history, but a major part of the foundation of America," he said. "Wait, Mr. President, the door's really opening up good. This could be the greatest gift of healing for the United States of America."
Museums on the Web
www.freedomcenter.org, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati.
anacostia.si.edu, Anacostia Museum, Washington.
maah-detroit.org, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit.
www.waynet.org/nonprofit/coffin.htm, Levi Coffin House, Fountain City, Ind.
www.coax.net/people/lwf/urmuseum.htm, National Underground Railroad Museum, Maysville, Ky.
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