Freedom Calls: A Trip To Cincinnati

Arthur Edgar E Smith writes "One of the important highlights of our Study of the U.S. Fullbright program was a day's trip to Cincinnati to see an important exhibition revolving around Blacks and their slave heritage. Our visit to this exhibition was the culmination of a four hour drive out of Louisville traversing long trailers conveying goods of varying sorts to the port-less city across the bridge over spanning the famous Ohio river unto Cincinnati. Actually I was expecting this exhibition to be underground beside or even across an old railroad. But then it was an imposing four storey concrete structure with brown tiled finishing standing tall amidst others overlooking the historic Ohio River. The Freedom Center seems like more than just a museum and cultural center where you watch relics of the past depicting slavery and you move out. It is a meeting point for engaging the issues that succeed slavery in unshackling man's freedom as well. Here guests become engaged in a life-long dialogue about the meaning and importance of freedom in their own lives and in the world around them.Various stories about struggles to maintain freedom are revealed through interactive multimedia such as drama, visual pictorial exhibits, sculptures, murals, films, talks involving, freedom heroes from the era of the Underground Railroad onto contemporary times.
  The core of the experience there centers around the dramatic narrative of the Underground Railroad, the secret network through which many of the enslaved made their way north to freedom in the decades before the American civil war. Cincinnatti was a major junction in that whole network. As many as, if not more than 100,000 enslaved peoples sought freedom through it as they traveled north, often as far as Canada or even south up to Mexico. This lasted for more than three decades. Songs and quilt clothes were often used as a means of passing on messages of intentions to escape. When quilts made on plantations were hung outside to air out in plain view, their patterns were actually a means of warning for some to get ready for the long journey to freedom. Escaping slaves sought refuge in safe houses owned by people like the Quakers, Levi Coffin and his wife, Catherine.
  This $ 100 Million Freedom Center consists of three connected pavilions designed to reflect the winding, natural course of the Ohio River, besides which it is located, as well as the often changing path to freedom demanding courage, cooperation and perseverance which are all celebrated here. Our visit to this four-floored building starts off with an introduction to the center by Dr Spencer Crew the center’s director with about four murals made out of fibre animating the walls and compelling snapshots of them from almost all of us. Then a hefty black American in black tailcoat suit moves with effort and grief to the stage. He recalls dramatically and plaintively the woes of the Blacks from their capture in Africa onto their harrowing and debilitating journey across the Atlantic onto America where their ordeals suffered in the plantations is rekindled. It leads up to many futile attempts at escape which are often brutally crushed. But then freedom is an inevitable end to so many struggles. But even then they still have to struggle to survive in a strange land that was already theirs.
  An introductory film SUITE FOR FREEDOM, an animation by international artists, depicts unfreedom, slavery and the Underground Railroad in the Harriet Tubman Theater in the second floor. Moving on expectantly to another room we watched a more eerie film BROTHERS OF THE BORDERLAND. In it Oprah Winfrey narrates a gripping drama of the stalwart efforts of two important agents in the underground escape network, Rev. John Rankin and John Parker daring death to give slaves a chance to escape into freedom amidst many battles from the slavers to annihilate them and retrieve their property, the escaping slaves. The film itself captured vividly the tension and the struggle with the sounds of battle and flight mingling with the teeming sounds of the forest and the flowing river reverberating in the theatre as we stuck glued to our chairs as watching on in horror. It was all in Ripley, Ohio, about 150 years before now. It was the center of the Borderland — a strip of territory several miles wide on either sides of the Ohio River with human lives suspended between hope and despair, between freedom and slavery and between life and death. For decades before The Civil War, the Borderland was a combat zone between the North and South as gangs of Southerners boldly invaded the free state of Ohio to reclaim their escaped slaves. Some individuals from Ohio assisted the fleeing slaves and even infiltrated Kentucky to organize those escapes. The Ohio River was the dividing line between North and South. After the American Revolution many anti-slavery Virginians from the continental army moved here making Ripley an ideal location for slaves to cross the river to freedom. In the 19th century the Ohio was more shallow and barely 1,000 feet wide, more than half of its present width. Nights in Ripley were filled with sounds of running feet of humans and horses, sudden cries of distress, gunshots and the clanging of chains. Mr John Parker who was always the subject of gossip or rumor there had secured his freedom after several attempts to escape. A skillful metal worker and an inventor with two patents to his credit, he owned a successful foundry. He risked all this fortune and even his very life night after night. His home sheltered countless fugitive slaves during the decades before the Civil War. Often he had to turn to his fellow Underground Railroad conductors when his house was under surveillance. He relied particularly on members of the Collins family, at whose home countless numbers of weary and frightened slaves found refuge. The conductors were a diverse group drawn from all walks of life and varied number of economic classes. So as Parker arrived in Ripley in 1845 he met an already well organized community of abolitionists some of whom had been involved in the Underground network for over twenty years. Their leader was Rev. John Rankin. He had been taught to hate slavery by his mother. After becoming a Presbyterian priest he realized that he could not safely preach against slavery in the South. So he left for Ohio in 1822 at the age of 29. In this small town he built a ministry on the prominent hill overlooking the town. He built a house that would inspire resistance to slavery for decades to come as well.Various artifacts, stories and a 12 — minute film trace America’s struggle from the earliest beginnings of slavery through the Civil War unto reconstruction after the attainment of freedom. The most memorable exhibit is the wooden log cabin preserved and restored within the center to represent a principal instrument of dehumanizing the black race with more than 75 of them stacked on the limited floor space and above in special racks to which they were shackled and chained thus forced to do everything — eat and defaecate right there. This structure was an actual one found on a Kentucky farm in Mason County and rebuilt in the Freedom Center. Slaves were temporarily housed there on their way south to be resold.‘Escape Freeedom Seekers’ and ‘The Underground Railroad’ is an intriguing and inviting hands-on interactivwe experience designed particularly for children and families encouraging them to explore this troubled period of American history. The center is almost transformed to a school as stories of people and families involved in fighting against slavery are being told.Three exhibits: ‘Everyday Freedom Heroes†‘The Struggle Continues’ and ‘Reflect, Respond, Resolve’ feature contemporary freedom and human rights issues. The first showcases more than 100 freedom champions across the world including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Alexander Solzhenitzn, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Mohamed Ali, and Bob Marley. The second is a 12 — minute documentary film preceding a media-rich gallery about contemporary freedom issues. The last one gives guests the opportunity to discuss, share issues and thoughts that were stimulated by their visit. This becomes in effect a springboard from which one could explore a wide range of modern day freedom issues including racism.This center, the most innovative and recent of museums, brings history closest to us. More than 500,000 people from all over the world have been coming to view these exhibits. They have consistently found out that their experience there was always better than they had anticipated. It was more informative, more emotionally moving and more comprehensive in scope and detail also imbuing in them a feeling of inspiration, a sense of motivation to emulate the values of courage and cooperation that drove people to seek freedom from slavery for themselves or to assist others in escaping during the Underground Railroad era.The center is often very busy hosting special events like film screenings, author book signings, new art displays and public forums. Prominent historians and authors have made presentations there to appreciative audiences. A forum on the landmark 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision which ended school segregation in America drew more than 200 observers in March 2005. The pre-screening of a new P.B.S series on genealogical research AFRICAN-AMERICAN LIVES was viewed by several hundreds in January 2006. I happened to have viewed it in our embassy in downtown Freetown on my return home in October this year. I found it very moving and thought provoking. In fact it stimulated an exhaustive but engaging discussion on a wide range of issues. As for me it was an occasion to recall my visit to this center and it must have stimulated the earlier writing of this article based on it.In June 2005 , cast members and opening night patrons of the new American opera Margaret Garner were feted at a late night event . The opera related to BELOVED the much-talked of recent novel of Black writer Tony Morrison, one of the many founders of the center, marked the opening of the centerto rave reviews and sell-out performances. Memorial services for civil rights heroes Rosa PARKS and Coretta SCOTT King [wife of Martin Luther King] held here received widespread media coverage"

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