By Dan Horn and Denise Smith Amos
Enquirer staff writers
The city that symbolized freedom for fleeing slaves welcomed a new symbol of hope to its riverfront Monday.
After 10 years of planning and more than two years of construction, Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center celebrated its dedication with a daylong festival in the heart of the city.
The party featured choirs and bands, a procession across the Roebling Suspension Bridge and the lighting of an eternal flame dedicated to the slaves who once crossed the Ohio River to freedom.
Tracy Walker from Clifton performs on the main stage Monday
during the Festival of Freedom at the Grand Dedication of the National
Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
(Glenn Hartong/The Enquirer)
The celebration drew thousands to the riverfront, including celebrities in evening gowns, dignitaries in tuxedos and children in Girl Scout uniforms.
Some said they came to learn about history or to see how Freedom Center officials spent the more than $110 million they raised for construction. A few came to protest racial inequity and to heckle speakers.
And others said they came in the hope the center would have a lasting impact on a community that has struggled in recent years with racial strife.
"We honor those who fought for freedom then and now," First Lady Laura Bush said in her dedication speech, which was interrupted several times by about a half-dozen protesters. "And we ensure that their hopes for a better world will never be extinguished."
Most in the crowd applauded Bush and the others who spoke at the ceremony, and many said they agreed the center could make a difference in Cincinnati and in other cities around the country.
"This is one of the best things to happen to Cincinnati," said Rosie Hindsman, of College Hill. "A lot of people are going to come to see what effect it's going to have in Cincinnati on race relations.
"The more people see different cultures come together, the more it will give them a different perspective on the city."
Former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young echoed those sentiments in his speech at the dedication Monday night.
"I hear the cry of freedom," Young said. "I look forward to working with you to continue this struggle to wipe out all of the vestiges of slavery.
"Somehow, we must learn to live and work together as brothers and sisters."
The center's mission is to tell the story of the Underground Railroad, the informal network of safe house, or "stations," that helped tens of thousands of slaves to freedom in the north.
The Freedom Center honors those slaves - as well as those who helped them - with displays of historic artifacts, with interactive exhibits and with films and videos that capture the perilous journey to freedom.
But the center's founders and supporters have repeatedly said they want the facility to be more than just a museum dedicated to the past. Their goal is to make it relevant to struggles for freedom today, from slavery in Africa to racial profiling in America.
The Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., a leader of the civil rights movement in Cincinnati, said he's optimistic the Freedom Center can accomplish that goal set by founders when they first proposed the facility a decade ago.
"It was great day," he said of Monday's celebration. "I'm anticipating that what we have gathered here will catapult us into the future the way we dreamed of 10 years ago.
"We've got a lot of hoopla here, but what drove the Underground Railroad was courage and perseverance."
Reds owner Carl Lindner praised the work of the center's founders, a diverse group of civil rights activists and local business leaders.
"Freedom applies to all of us," he said. "Black, white, whatever."
U.S. Rep. Rob Portman said he hopes the enthusiasm he saw at the grand opening translates into continued support for the center in the months and years to come. The center is counting on more than 200,000 visitors a year and millions of dollars in donations to survive.
"We can't slack off now," Portman said. "This is over a decade of hard work and the realization of a dream that's going to put Cincinnati on the map."
While some saw the center as an opportunity for the community, others celebrated Monday for more personal reasons.
Thomas Johnson and his brother, William, traveled to Cincinnati to honor their great-grandfather, Arnold Gragston, who rowed an estimated 300 slaves to freedom across the Ohio River.
Gragston, who lived in Ripley, Ohio, eventually had to flee for his own safety.
"He always had his mind on the betterment of mankind," said William Johnson, of Winston-Salem, N.C. "He wasn't selfish."
As children, he said, he and his brother used to visit their great-grandfather in Ripley this time of year. He said it seemed appropriate to make the trip to Cincinnati in his memory.
Most didn't have such a personal connection to the Underground Railroad, but they came to celebrate those who did.
Pippa Whitehead, of Kennedy Heights, brought seven girls from the Girl Scout troop she leads in North Avondale. The girls joined about 1,500 people in the "freedom procession" across the Roebling Suspension Bridge.
The idea was for the girls to follow, at least symbolically, the same path the slaves once took across the river.
"It lets them see how far we've progressed," Whitehead said. "And going to the Freedom Center lets them see how things have changed."
Maria Newhaus, a mother of three from Delhi Township, said she brought her children to the festival so they'd learn a bit of history they are unlikely to learn in school.
Newhaus, who is white, said she grew up in a nearly all-white town.
"I was challenged in my learning because I had been very sheltered," she said. "I wanted my children to be able to catch a piece of history they wouldn't get in public schools. My children can be raised with a fuller understanding of history than I was."
Hannah Thomas of College Hill said education was her goal when she decided to coordinate a church trip to the Freedom Center involving several families from around Cincinnati.
"This is the history we have to get our kids forever to be focused on," Thomas said. "I didn't give my kids the background my mom gave me because we thought that the struggle was over.
"But it's not over."
Speakers at the dedication included Bush, Young, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, CNN anchor Bill Hemmer, Mayor Charlie Luken and former federal judge Nathaniel Jones.
Many also showed up to have fun. Local bands and choirs provided the music, and vendors kept the crowd fed and entertained.
But there were disappointments. U2 singer Bono had been on the guest list but failed to show, and Sean "P. Diddy'' Combs canceled his appearance.
A few protesters showed up late in the evening to speak out against what they believe is a lack of progress on race-related issues in Cincinnati.
At the dedication ceremony Monday, some of the protesters stood near the stage and heckled Bush, Luken and the Center's director, Spencer Crew, as they spoke. They shouted "no justice, no peace" and "Bush is the devil."
Luken acknowledged the hecklers before leaving the stage. "That is the spirit of the Freedom Center," he said. "It's a place where everybody can come together."
Center supporters have said it makes little sense to protest a facility dedicated to freedom and racial healing. And in his speech, Andrew Young said he saw the center as an opportunity to tie the struggles of the past to the problems of today.
"This is a commitment, not only to the past," Young said. "But a commitment to continue working for the future."
Enquirer reporters Kevin Aldridge, Marilyn Bauer, Maggie Downs, Ari Bloomekatz, Natalie Morales and Jim Knippenberg contributed.
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