Tuesday, August 24, 2004

'A dream come true'

The Enquirer

From U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat: "I don't think the history of this nation would have been complete without documenting the history of freedom." She said she will invite the Congressional Black Caucus "to come here and sit here in this building and reflect on freedom."

"This is not a center that is limited to one race,'' Lee said. "I hope this will be a light unto the world. I hope the people come in droves."

Singer/songwriter Tracy Walker from Clifton performs on the main stage this afternoon during the Festival of Freedom at the Grand Dedication of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
(Glenn Hartong/The Enquirer)

Monday's ceremony
Sunday's gala
•  The Freedom Center "gives a responsibility to ordinary people so they have a place to go to remember how far we've come and how far we have yet to go," Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reece said.

"I would like people to leave with some action. That's what the Underground Railroad is about. Not a bunch of people who sat around and said wouldn't it be great if we could be free."

•  "It means a lot that so many people see this as worthwhile,'' said Spencer Crew, Freedom Center executive director and CEO.

"It's the culmination of a dream come true."

Historians discuss book

A panel of American historians convened Monday morning at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to introduce the center's first publication, Passages to Freedom.

In the darkened Flight to Freedom Theater, the book's editor, Yale University American History professor David Blight introduced the book following the Black National Anthem, performed on saxophone by William Brian Hogg, lecturer in jazz and saxophone studies at Northern Kentucky University.

"Our goal was to write to the largest possible audience, the largest possible history," Blight said.

"We wanted to penetrate the deep phenomenon of the legend of the Underground Railroad and blend what is probably history with what is memory."

Contributor Lois Horton, a professor of history at George Mason University, said "At the time women didn't have a public role in American society. But women abolitionists spoke out and held anti-slavery fairs that funded the Underground Railroad. There's a story about a group of Cincinnati women who confronted armed slave catchers holding eight to 10 fugitives and armed with only washboards and rolling pins, liberated the slaves."

Tent becomes theater

The football-field-sized tent that Sunday housed a $1,000-a-plate gala was transformed into a performance venue for Monday's dedication celebration. The first quarter or so of the space morphed into a theater full of storytellers, puppets, face painters, singers, arts and crafts.

The middle section became a larger theater full of rhythmic drumming, songs, rap, dance and chants from groups including Garth Fagan Dancers (Rochester, N.Y.) and Resurrection Dance Theater of Haiti, and the local acts Tracy Walker, Firelytes Steel Drum Band and McGing Irish Dancers.

Combs cancels appearance

Sean "P. Diddy" Combs canceled his appearance midday Monday and issued this statement:

"It is with deep regret that I am unable to attend today's public dedication of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati on behalf of Citizen Change, due to an unexpected personal obligation.

"The Freedom Center is arguably the most important new cultural institution today. Not only does it honor the courage of the slaves who risked everything to pursue freedom, but it also celebrates the intrepid freedom conductors who dared to help them."

Public tour abbreviated

The Freedom Center was closed to visitors Monday except for an abbreviated tour after the torch was lit and fireworks set off. It was almost 11 p.m. before the doors officially opened.

Visitors were allowed to go up the grand staircase, down the grand hall and past the slave pen.

Center organizers expected to stay open as late as 1 a.m.

All those attending were to be given a free ticket good for 30 days to return and tour the Freedom Center.

Media converge on city

The national spotlight was on Cincinnati Monday. More than 300 media representatives from the U.S. and Canada converged for Sunday's gala and Monday's dedication.

All the major networks showed up: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox. Harry Smith anchored the CBS Early Show from the grounds of the Freedom Center, and Good Morning America did a series of cut-ins.

People magazine was there, along with Us, Access Hollywood, Variety, Entertainment Tonight and a handful of Internet-based publications.

Choir captivates audience

The 700-member Freedom Center Choir received three standing ovations for their performance, which included "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child'' and "We Shall Overcome."

"This is what it's all about,'' Demarco Powell of Avondale said between songs Monday. He brought his 3-year-old daughter Isis Miracle to the dedication so "at a young age, she can know that it's about coming together.

"And that is how you hold onto freedom.''

Glitches mix with the glitz

• AIDS activist Victor Mooney from New York City brought dirt from the 9/11 site to carry over the Roebling Bridge during the dedication. But he accidentally left the dirt in the back of a Cincinnati cab Monday morning. He quickly realized his mistake and got on the phone. The cab was intercepted at his next fare, and the dirt was returned.

• Fungisai Mugwagwa, Miss Zimbabwe USA, 2004 Miss African International competition, missed the gala because a connecting flight was canceled. She was en route from Washington, D.C., via Lansing. The connecting flight to Cincinnati was delayed, then canceled. She arrived hours late dressed in a Chanel knock-off suit and tiny Barbie sandals.

"I look terrible. ...I haven't slept in hours. Everything is so confusing," she told Center spokesman Ernest Britton.

TV producer seeks 'heroes'

On dedication day, the Freedom Center already was looking to the future. Jim Friedman, one of Cincinnati's most frequently honored producers with 53 Emmys to his credit, has been hired to scour the nation looking for everyday heroes.

Pepsi Freedom Heroes will be a series of news stories as short as 1 1/2 minutes and as long as five or 10. Plans also call for a once-a-year special.

"The heroes will be people who get out of their comfort zones to free someone else," Friedman said.

Nothing has been determined about where the spots might air locally, Friedman said.

Coming attractions

Still ahead at the Freedom Center:

Sept. 16-18 - Borderlands III Underground Railroad Conference. A regional conference co-sponsored by Northern Kentucky University and the Freedom Center features a tour of local Underground Railroad sites and two days of academic sessions at NKU. Information: 487-5817.

Sept. 18 - Jazz concert featuring Buster Williams Somethin' More Quartet, Harriet Tubman Theater. $30 members/$40 nonmembers. Information:333-7737.

Sept. 21 - Free the Slaves president Kevin Bales discusses his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Harriet Tubman Theater. $10 members/$12 nonmembers. Information: 333-7500.

Oct. 15 - Jazz concert featuring the Kenny Baron Trio. Harriet Tubman Theater. $30 members/$40 nonmembers. Information: 333-7737.

Thoughts from visitors

'I see this as an opportunity for, if nothing else, maybe a wake-up call ... from all the violence that's been going on (in Cincinnati).'
Jackee Bonner, 41, of Over-the-Rhine

'It does acknowledge that we have this terrible, terrible history. It could be redeeming if we see that this oppression is continuing.'
Monica McGloin, 63, of Over-the-Rhine

'You hope to learn from the past, so you don't repeat your mistakes.'
Peter Haid, 36, of Oakley

If you go

Where: 50 E. Freedom Way, downtown Cincinnati

Hours: 11-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Admission: $12 for adults; $10 for students with I.D.; and seniors ages 64-plus; $8 for children ages 6-12. Tickets available at the door and online at www.freedomcenter.org

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