Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Freedom Center taps emotions

Opening-day visitors find quilt, films impressive

By John Johnston
Enquirer staff writer

Special section: Tour the Freedom Center
Freedom Center taps emotions
Last exhibit intended to get people talking
What: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Where: 50 E. Freedom Way, downtown
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission: $12 for adults ages 13-59; $8 for children ages 6-12; $10 for students with I.D. and for seniors age 60 and over.
Information: (513) 333-7500 or
Tuesday's public opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was low-key, but it packed an emotional wallop for some visitors.

"I'm overwhelmed," Annie Rollins, a 53-year-old grade-school teacher from Mount Healthy, said shortly after doors opened at 11 a.m. "I'm proud of the effort."

Tears welled in her eyes when she saw the multi-hued, 30-by-22-foot fabric mural that artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson has spent 35 years making. "Journeys," created with found objects such as beads, shells, bark, buttons and other scraps of material, was inspired by trips the artist made to Africa, New York, Israel and her father's ancestral home in Georgia. It hangs on the center's second floor, near an authentic slave pen that came from a Kentucky farm.

And when Rollins ventured inside that pen and saw the names of slaves once imprisoned there, "I had to read every name out loud, because they mattered so much," she said, her 13-year-old son Chris at her side. "It's unimaginable that someone actually had to endure this."

More than 10,000 people have attended preview events the past two weeks, but crowds were sparse - 326 paying customers - on the first day the Freedom Center opened to the general public. That wasn't unexpected. Tuesday's opening was announced just a few days ago, and center officials say smaller crowds the next couple of weeks will allow them time to iron out wrinkles as they ratchet up for the Aug. 23 grand opening.

That day will feature hours of celebration, a nearly 1,000-member Freedom Center choir and celebrities.

But some people, such as retired schoolteacher Clara Gossett of Anderson Township, didn't want to wait to see the $110 million Freedom Center, which sits between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium.

She was particularly impressed by the center's films, including Brothers of the Borderland, narrated by Oprah Winfrey. It tells the story of John Parker and John Rankin, who aided fleeing slaves in Ripley, Ohio. The film is shown in an "environmental theater" complete with effects such as fog and the sound of bullets whizzing.

"I'm just touched. I'm overwhelmed. It just makes it so real," she said.

Cincinnati and the surrounding region played a key role in the Underground Railroad, the informal network of abolitionists, free blacks and others who helped slaves gain freedom in the years before the Civil War. The Freedom Center's location on the northern banks of the Ohio River is significant: The waterway, which separated the slave state of Kentucky and free state of Ohio, was once considered the "River Jordan" for escaping slaves.

"I go to a lot of museums," said John Kontogianes, a Tulsa, Okla., resident in town visiting family. "This is a world-class museum. They've done a good job of drawing you into the exhibits."

Many are interactive, and designed to appeal to children.

"It's good for the younger kids because it brings it down to a level they can understand, but it's not so elementary that people of all ages can't enjoy it," said Crystal Morris, director of summer and after-school programs for the Salvation Army downtown.


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