Alpha Blackburn, wife of the late architect Walter Blackburn, will now oversee the construction of the National
   Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Eye Photos by Ellen Jackson)

Underground Railroad Museum
Designed By Local Firm

Monday, April 14, 2003

By Jennifer Harrison

Most people don’t connect Cincinnati with positive racial relations. The city was torn apart two years ago by three days of rioting after a white police officer killed an unarmed black man.

But despite a boycott of the city called by black leaders, there is some racial repair work going on now. One of the most positive symbols is under construction near the banks of the Ohio River: the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which will be an important tribute to the legacy of slavery, as well as the freedom movement that ended in the Civil War. The Center will showcase the oppression of slavery and its consequences, balanced with stories of racial cooperation toward common goals. The 158,000-square-foot national museum opens the summer of 2004 and expects 250,000 visitors annually.

The Underground Railroad was a 19th-century network of people who aided fugitive slaves on their journey to freedom. The network between safe houses or stations was largely secret. Abolitionists were a minority and took great risk in helping others escape slavery. Neighbor might reveal neighbor, a free black might report seeing a fugitive slave to collect a reward. Slave hunters from both slave and free states haunted river crossings, rode in posses on towns and farms hunting fugitives with dogs and guns, and knocked on doors day or night and demanded to search the premises. The slave hunters agitated not only conductors and abolitionists, but their neighbors as well.

The underground railroad gained more support over time through churches, speakers and publications. Some historians have called the freedom movement “the war before the War.” The movement led to continuous conflict and animosity between north and south, slaveholder and abolitionist. Laws were passed to prevent residents in free and slave states from aiding escaped slaves. Yet some abolitionists were surprisingly bold and open in their beliefs and actions. Many were regularly harassed, some were killed, and others were jailed or became impoverished from their work on the railroad.

Architects of the Freedom Center

Indiana’s Walter Blackburn designed the Freedom Center but died of cancer in August 2000, before construction began. His widow, Alpha Blackburn, now operates the Indianapolis architectural firm and oversees the completion of the important cultural project.

In a recent conversation, Alpha Blackburn explained the museum’s overall design concept. "It has taken so long for the complete telling of the story of the struggle of black people to overcome having been enslaved in America. We wanted the building to be significant and powerful and permanent."

Although slavery and freedom are serious subjects, the architects and museum did not want the building to appear ominous, but rather inviting and inspirational, said Blackburn. They wanted the building to help tell the story of the underground railroad. It does that in several ways. The building itself is a series of three pavilions "connected by almost transparent bridges that we think of as the arms of those who helped in the struggle to free slaves, and to express community and being connected," said Blackburn.

One facade of the building will be covered in copper that will age to a gentle green patina. The north and south exteriors will be covered with a rough-hewn, tan marble. The rough stone speaks to the difficulty of the journey, said Alpha. The southwest exterior faces the Ohio River. The riverside exterior and landscape projects mystery and intrigue with water elements as well as paths that lead into and under the building. The roofs slope up and down, mirroring the gentle hills of the river valley. A freedom flame will be lit on a riverside balcony that can be seen from afar. A symbol that “harkens back to the candles set on windows,” says Blackurn, “to let fugitive slaves know the home was safe, and that they could find friends inside who would help them on their way.”

Network of Freedom Act

In 1998, the National Underground Railroad Network of Freedom Act was enacted. It provides broad measures to ensure the protection and interpretation of the underground railroad. The National Park Service received the job of planning and overseeing it. In Indiana, the Department of Natural Resources is the lead agency working with the NPS. The co-operative effort here has led to regional research grants and reports for most of Indiana’s regions. The volunteer group, the Indiana Freedom Trails, grew out of the collaboration between DNR and NPS and is currently researching historic underground railroad sites around the state. Indiana Freedom Trails coordinators and volunteers work with communities and researchers to identify and document railroad sites. The goal is to find adequate evidence of railroad activities at individual sites so they can be nominated for historic status and gain recognition as a Network of Freedom Site. But as the railroad was a secret enterprise, it’s difficult to document activities and sites 150 years after the fact.

In Indiana several sites currently belong to the NPS Network of Freedom. Both programs, such as research or education initiatives, and sites can become part of the network. Indiana sites currently include the Levi Coffin home in Fountain City, north of Richmond; the Indiana Freedom Trails Initiative; and New Albany’s UGRR Program. Other sites and programs will be added over time.

Indiana researchers know there was underground railroad activity in every county of Indiana, as well as three main railroad routes leading north through Indiana. One trail went roughly through the center of the state including Indianapolis and Westfield; one originated in Cincinnati then moved north through eastern Indiana; and a third trail started near Evansville and followed the Wabash River to Lafayette; and from Lafayette the trail headed north.

Here’s how the national Freedom Network law connects to the Freedom Center in Cincinnati. The law that continues to drive a flurry of UGRR research activity in states that participated in the underground railroad also provides for a central UGRR museum. That museum will tell the story of the underground railroad and civil rights in our country.

A stone’s throw from Indianapolis, the NURFC in Cincinnati will attract both national and international visitors. The museum tapped Spencer Crew, former head of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as CEO. Some of the exhibits at the museum will come from the Smithsonian. Edwin Rigaud, a senior executive, was loaned from Proctor and Gamble to the project in 1996. Rigaud later retired from P&G and is now president of the Freedom Center. P&G, headquartered in Cincinnati, had a long-standing interest in developing an underground railroad museum. That interest, plus the central location of Cincinnati along the Ohio River’s “corridor of freedom” led to the museum sprouting up in Cincinnati.

More Indiana connections

Educators who visit the Freedom Center’s Web site can connect with resources and curriculum for teaching the underground railroad in the classroom. On June 6, a one-day teacher’s workshop in downtown Indianapolis will feature speakers from the Freedom Center, the National Park Service, as well as DNR’s Jeannie Regan-Dinius, who will present an Indiana case study that will highlight tools and resources available for research and teaching. For more information on the workshop call (317) 232-1646.

As part of its mission, the Freedom Center is creating a network of educational and research tools, said Orloff Miller, Director of Education at NURFC. Those tools include a network of research centers, the development of an online digital archive of source documents, and an online forum for research discussions. Look for these resources at NURFC’s Web site under “Freedom Stations.” Digitizing original manuscripts and other source materials is a labor and cost intensive process, although under way it will proceed slowly.

The museum plans to digitize the valuable Wilbur Siebert collection, which includes volumes about Indiana. Wilburt Siebert was a professor of history who in the late 1800s began collecting information about the underground railroad. His collection covers 28 states, contains over 100 boxes, and is held at the Ohio Historical Society. Such early source material is invaluable as participants of the railroad or their children would still be living, and could provide credible accounts of railroad activity.

What you’ll find at the Freedom Center

A visit begins with a short film that introduces the museum’s major themes. The first level contains an auditorium, cafeteria and greeting area. Films and exhibits on the first two floors are suitable for young children. The third floor may be too intense for some children.

A Travel and Escape exhibit describes the basic structure and geography of the underground railroad and will include a Kentucky Slave Pen. This historic structure provided temporary housing for “human property” as slave traders traveled on the Ohio River. A Story Theater tells stories of the railroad in the Ohio Valley through the lives of real people.

One of those people will be Indiana’s Levi Coffin, who some describe as the "president" of the underground railroad. John Parker is the story of a slave who escaped from slavery and was recaptured several times, but who finally succeeded in his pursuit of freedom. Parker later became a daring conductor of fugitive slaves. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, was an outspoken and widely published abolitionist who helped thousands of fugitive slaves. Rankin and his large family lived on a hill north of Ripley, Ohio. Every night, if it was deemed safe, the Rankins lit a lantern in a window, or hung one aloft a high pole so it would be seen on Kentucky shores.

The third floor explores the slave trade and the development of slavery in the Americas. This leads to displays about continuing struggles for equal civil rights. Before departing, visitors walk through a corridor filled with film montages, sound and photos they’ve experienced during their visit. The media corridor opens to a forum that can be used to discuss and react to the underground railroad experience.

The Journey Continues

The Freedom Center needs to raise $110 million to complete construction and programming. It has currently reached $90 million of that goal, with approximately half of its funding coming from private donors, and half from the government. Robert L. Johnson, CEO of Black Entertainment Network, a division of Viacom, made a $3 million personal gift to the Freedom Center in February. The gift was matched by a personal gift from retired P&G chairman, John Pepper.

“Race relations in America continue to be a critical part of our national dialogue," said BET’s Johnson. "The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will advance discussions on race in a way that honors the cooperation and courage that led to freedom from slavery and, as important, propels us as a country to continue our quest for equality."

Indeed, a non-political forum for factual stories, education and discussion about freedom and race offers a hopeful message for racial relations not only in Cincinnati but also around the country, and perhaps further.

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