Monday, August 23, 2004

Lighting Freedom's Way

National names join Cincinnatians to
celebrate the center's dedication

By Jim Knippenberg and Marilyn Bauer
Enquirer staff writers

The stars were out Sunday night under a sweltering sun.

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Photo Gallery: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

More than 1,500 guests from Cincinnati and around the nation, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey, actress Angela Bassett and actor husband Courtney Vance, attended a $1,000-a-plate gala, "Lighting Freedom's Way," celebrating the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's dedication.

Guests started arriving at 6 p.m. in everything from a Rolls Royce to a horse-drawn carriage, pulling up to the red carpet leading to the football-field sized tent near the banks of the Ohio River.

Winfrey, who donated $1 million to the center and narrated its Brothers of the Borderland film, was fashionably late, arriving at 7:30 with boyfriend Stedman Graham. Winfrey wore a black Gianfranco Ferre ("Ferre, always Ferre," she joked) floor-length dress with a plunging neckline. "I believe this is important," said Winfrey, "so I wanted to come and support it."

Among the earliest guests to arrive were Vance - dressed in a dark blue suit and bright, salmon-colored shirt - and Bassett, who wore a purple silk pantsuit and short heels with a pink purse. Vance said he was impressed with the building.

"I haven't been inside yet," he said, "but from outside this place is just awesome. I can't wait to get inside and see and hear the story it tells."

Next up were sports greats Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and now an ABC-TV sports analyst, and basketball legend Oscar Robertson, who, like most of the men in attendance, wore a tuxedo. He was accompanied by his wife, Yvonne.

"A lot of people put a lot of time and money into this project," Robertson said. "But it's still only the beginning of what we have to learn about the Underground Railroad and slavery."

Guests made their way down the red carpet amid the flash of cameras (a yellow carpet was to have served symbolically in its stead, but was jettisoned at the last minute).

The walk was a bit uneven in part because the event, originally scheduled to take place inside the Freedom Center, ballooned from 600 guests to 1,500, forcing event planners to erect the tent on a gravel and dirt lot.

A pair of bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the red carpet area before guests arrived, and a pair of local Army reservists in uniform were there as a presence and to greet guests before they entered the tent.

Retired federal court Judge Nathaniel Jones, a center board member, attending with his wife, Lillian, said, "This is momentous. This demonstrates that we can become, no, we have become, a model for the country and the world on how you can deal with issues of tremendous passion."

Melody Sawyer Richardson, who co-chaired the event with physician and researcher Dr. O'dell Owens, arrived early and smiling, despite a host of last-minute details that needed to be worked out.

"After nine months work, this is like having a really, really big baby," she said. Richardson wore a champagne-colored Badgley Mischka gown accented by a mink shrug.

Center architect Alpha Blackburn, of Blackburn Associates, also arrived early wearing a strapless cherry red Tom Ford for Gucci midriff-bearing couture gown. "I don't think I've ever been quite this excited and gratified," she said. "The conclusion greatly exceeds the beginning."

Reds owner Carl Lindner, wearing a tuxedo, arrived in a white Rolls Royce. "I am really proud of Cincinnati because this is such a great addition to our city," said Lindner, who this summer was named one of the center's 100 Everyday Freedom Heroes.

The first guest to arrive was Freedom Center executive director Spencer Crew.

Cincinnati philanthropist Merri Gaither-Smith, wearing a red off the shoulder chiffon gown, said, "I think this is so wonderful and I'm so excited because it is so good for the city. I think it's the shot in the arm we need."

Also in attendance were Reds president and CEO John Allen, Cincinnati Opera artistic director Nicholas Muni, philanthropist Stanley Kaplan, Cincinnati mayoral candidate Mark Mallory, City Councilman Jim Tarbell, former councilman Tyrone Yates, Fifth Third Bank president George Schaefer, Queen City Foundation president Ron Felder, attorney Stan Chesley and his wife, federal court judge Susan Dlott, former Ohio Senate president Stanley Aronoff, former Northern Kentucky University president Leon Boothe, and local businessman Steven Reece (also an Everyday Freedom Hero) and his wife, Barbara.

The evening concluded with a standing ovation for Crew and president Ed Rigaud. Also honored were the Center's first three volunteers, Yvonne Robertson, Francie Hiltz and Chip Harrod.

Stephanie Creech Hackett contributed.

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