Monday, August 23, 2004

Stars' heat warms museum

Freedom Center celebrates
its own journey's start

By Jim Knippenberg
Enquirer staff writer

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been a celebrity magnet since its beginnings.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
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Brandi Stafford/The Enquirer
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Photo Gallery: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

From the people recruited for the first honorary board (newsman Bryant Gumbel, singer Harry Belafonte, musician Quincy Jones, poet Nikki Giovanni, Halliburton CEO, now Vice President Dick Cheney) to a list of early supporters that included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, novelist Toni Morrison and poet Maya Angelou.

The Freedom Center has harnessed the "power of celebrity" and that has paid off a million-fold, literally. The $110 million capital campaign is within $8 million of its goal and a good deal of the fund-raising success can be attributed to star power.

"In 1996 when I started full time, one of the first things I decided was that we needed an honorary board of people with national credentials to establish our credibility," says Ed Rigaud, Freedom Center president and founding executive director.

"We got on the phone and started calling people. At that point it was me, John Pepper (former Procter & Gamble chairman) and Andrew Young, with tremendous help from Nate Jones (retired federal appeals court judge) and Vernon Jordan (civil rights leader)."

Where: 50 E. Freedom Way, Cincinnati riverfront.

Admission: Free (the Freedom Center building will be closed during the festival).

Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Street closings: Until 6 a.m. Tuesday, Vine Street between Theodore M. Berry Way and Second Street are closed. From 5-10 p.m. today, the Suspension Bridge will be closed.

Getting there: Public parking available, shuttles provided between Freedom Center and Westin and Cincinnatian hotels.

Miscellaneous: Lawn chairs, blankets and coolers welcome.

Information: 412-6900.

Convincing people turned out to be easy. "Once we got through, almost everyone said yes, of course they'd help. Some even came to us. We didn't think to recruit P. Diddy (rapper Sean Combs). He called us and asked to come aboard."

Combs was just one of the guests who adjusted schedules so they could walk the yellow carpet (red was deemed inappropriate because it represents blood, Giovanni said) at Sunday night's gala or be here for today's public dedication. Also making time were first lady Laura Bush, actress Angela Bassett, talk show diva Oprah Winfrey, national news anchors Harry Smith, Diane Sawyer and former Cincinnatian Bill Hemmer, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young, Essence editor Susan Taylor and Ebony editor Linda Johnson Rice.Rock stars Nick Lachey and Bono were also due in, but canceled. Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell had to cancel for a family funeral.

"The most remarkable thing to me was the high percentage of people who signed on without hesitation," says Pepper. "I had a connection to (actress/singer) Vanessa Williams through P&G, and she said OK after about two minutes."

Stars attract attention

Celebrities are recruited for two important reasons, Rigaud says. One is awareness: "Face it, stars attract attention (and) make the average citizen take notice. For pure awareness, the glamorous stars such as Vanessa and Angela Bassett are a tremendous boost, but they're less help with fundraising."

The big fund-raising help comes from the people Rigaud calls "the more serious" celebrities, such as Morrison, Angelou and Giovanni. "They open the doors to big donors, the grantors and the philanthropists," Rigaud says.

Capital campaign co-chair Pepper agrees and cites a third area where power of celebrity comes into play - the impact they have on the staff and volunteers.

"Celebrities articulate a point of view that elevates others working on the project," he said. "Of course they give voice and a face to a product, but I think the credibility they have and the spirit in which they say it have a huge impact."

It's not as glamorous, but niche celebrity also plays a role, Pepper says.

Those would be the scholars and big name historians - Dr. David Blight of Yale, James Horton of George Washington University - recruited for the project.

"The big names in a certain field are there to make sure we get it right, and the public, really the world, notices and appreciates that," Pepper said.

Rita Tateel, cofounder of Celebrity Source, a 20-year-old Los Angeles firm that matches celebrities and charities, is convinced a celeb can make all the difference.

"The most important thing they bring is visibility that the group might otherwise not have been able to secure," he said. "They also bring credibility and they're a big help with fundraising because they are influencers. People look to well-known others to see what they should do."

'To bring a point of view'

Poet Giovanni plays down the force of her celebrity power.

"I don't think about it. I got on board to bring a point of view I was afraid could be overlooked, namely that this (the underground railroad) was an honorable experience and that the people who stood up and said 'I'm free' and then walked away were true heroes," she said.

"I embraced the project because I am a lover of that experience. We (slaves) did get a lot of help, but it was a black experience. We stood for something and we stand for something. We are an ideal - an ideal of freedom.

"I think we all have a lot to learn from the Freedom Center and I want to be sure everyone has the chance."

Festival of Freedom today

• Passages to Freedom book signing 9-11 a.m. Freedom Theater at the Freedom Center. Limited space.

• Noon: Welcome.

• Noon-8 p.m. Festival of Freedom, a public festival with dance, music, storytelling and face painting.

• 12:05 p.m.: Entertainment begins.

• 6:30 p.m.: Dedication concert

• 7-8 p.m. Grounds for Freedom Procession/Parade of Light.

• 8-10 p.m.: Public dedication


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