Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Freedom Center stands apart


When Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opens this summer, it will focus attention on one of the most tragic and triumphant periods in American history: the brutality of slavery and the subsequent path to freedom across the Ohio River and through the northern states before and during the Civil War.

To pit the center's fund-raising success against other museums that share similar goals undermines the fundamental reason for their existence, which is to recognize the Underground Railroad's role in freeing thousands of slaves and highlight the courage it took to accomplish the feat.

A story by the Enquirer's Carl Weiser on Monday addressed the resentment felt toward the Freedom Center from other Underground Railroad education and African-American historic preservation organizations, because the Freedom Center has attracted so much of the government money available for such projects.

The center received $16 million for construction, thanks in large part to the efforts of Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and influential U.S. Rep. Rob Portman of Terrace Park. It also has received two-thirds of federal education dollars allotted for the Underground Railroad Education and Cultural Program.

But most of the $100 million the Freedom Center has raised came from private and corporate sources.

There are a number of programs in the United States that study slavery, civil rights and particularly the history of the Underground Railroad, and many seek federal funds. Yet none are on the scale of the Freedom Center on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. That's one important reason it is unwise to bicker over whether one organization is bleeding funding away from another. Instead, other organizations can piggyback off the buzz the Freedom Center will create, and generate more activity for their own important work.

"I think the Freedom Center has created a new day for Underground Railroad projects," spokesman Ernest Britton said. "This new attention is going to bring dollars that are going to benefit all institutions."

He's right. An important part of the Freedom Center's national outreach is that it plans more than 60 Freedom Stations throughout the United States. The Center says its Freedom Stations program is an affiliation service for researchers and educators working to apply the lessons of history to modern-day human relations efforts.

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