CINCINNATI — The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, nestled between the Bengals and Reds stadiums here, is a beacon of hope and progress for working people everywhere. Open since 2004, it is a tribute to those brave people who struggled for freedom and justice against the oppressive system of slavery.
The structure itself is impressive. The design symbolizes the winding path to freedom taken by the slaves. A beautiful, south-facing glass wall overlooks the Ohio River and Kentucky. Before the Civil War, the Ohio River marked the line separating slavery from freedom.
I visited the museum with some pride since I have ancestors who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad in Missouri.
Entering the exhibition area after climbing winding stairs, two massive textile works seize your attention. Created by Aminah Brenda Lynn, they depict the struggles of the African people against the transatlantic slave trade, particularly here in Ohio.
Cincinnati and Ripley, Ohio, were two of the most important locations in the history of slavery. They were points where slaves were shipped to the South and through which the slaves passed on their journey to freedom in Canada.
The next compelling piece is a huge mural started by Tom Feelings and completed by Tyrone Geter after Feelings’ death, depicting the “confinement of an individual in the Mason County Slave Pen.” Surrounding images depict “the arrival into America, slave auction, family separation, forced coffle marches, and slave labor in the forests of Tennessee and cotton fields of Missippi.”
This leads to a reconstructed 1830s slave pen from Maysville, Ky., providing a look at the horrific conditions slaves were forced to endure. Owner John Anderson also owned a racing stable and lived a luxurious lifestyle as a result of the profits he extracted from these workers’ labor and the sale of human beings.
Throughout the museum, images of progressive figures such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Pete Seeger, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison are visible and quotations from many of them stress the importance of “courage, cooperation and perseverance.”
The multiethnic nature of the struggle against slavery is a notable theme, with the contributions of African Americans, whites, Latinos and Native Americans displayed.
A film on view, “Brothers of the Borderland,” introduced by Oprah Winfrey, tells the story of how two leaders of the Underground Railroad in Ripley cooperated to help slaves escape across the Ohio River — John Parker, a former slave who was a successful metalworker and inventor, and John Rankin, a white religious leader.
Despite the progress that’s been made, slavery is still a business practice used around the world with a few individuals reaping fantastic profits. And union-busting and red-baiting are terror tactics used against working people in this country, with even more violent methods in countries such as Colombia and Guatemala, in an effort to keep workers in virtual slavery.
The fuels of progress are unity and struggle, exemplified in this marvelous museum. When in Cincinnati don’t miss the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.