Travel Treasures Close to Home: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

by Tom Reed
WMV Web News Cleveland
Story filed September 28, 2004

We may travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to visit a tourist destination, but we sometimes overlook the attractions in our own backyard . These may be in Greater Cleveland, elsewhere in Ohio, or in neighboring states. Here is the third in a series of articles about such places by Tom Reed, a freelance writer who specializes in travel, and who has been writing about various subjects in our Reed's Read segment.

If you drive into downtown Cincinnati from the Kentucky side, crossing the Ohio River on the historic Roebling Suspension bridge, you'll see the Paul Brown Stadium (Bengals) on your left, the Great American Ballpark (Reds) on your right, and straight ahead the three interconnected buildings that make up the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The location is symbolic, because the Ohio River was a major crossing point for fleeing slaves who made their way to freedom through the informal escape network known as the Underground Railroad.

The $110 million Freedom Center opened with a great deal of fanfare in August, joining the two sports stadiums in the revitalization of Cincinnati's riverfront.

Probably the most moving exhibit is a reconstructed two-story slave pen, moved piece by piece from a farm in Kentucky. So new and clean-looking, in its rebuilt form, it's hard to imagine it was once used as a human warehouse by John W. Anderson of Maysville, Kentucky, to hold slaves before taking them down the Mississippi to sell them at Natchez. At the time of his death, Anderson owned 32 slaves.

Except for the slave pen and a few other artifacts, the center relies heavily on high tech to tell its story. An animated video in the Suite for Freedom Theater sets the stage for what's to follow.

In another theater, a video narrated by Oprah Winfrey introduces visitors to Brothers of the Borderland. It dramatizes the story of a slave's escape across the Ohio River at Ripley, Ohio, in an "environmental theater", so-called because it puts you in the setting. You see the mist rising from the river and hear the barking dogs of the fugitive slave hunters. Fake trees on either side of the screen seem to blend into the video. The story traces the efforts of two authentic Underground Railroad conductors -- John Parker, a free black man, and a white minister, Rev. John Rankin.

In a presentation called ESCAPE! a video focuses on a fictional young slave named Caleb who wrestles with the decision to leave his mother and sister and try to gain his freedom.

Other exhibits attempt to bring the struggle for freedom up to date, by showing more recent examples of genocide, tyranny, and oppression. But the focus, as the center's name suggests, is on the role of the Underground Railroad in bringing countless slaves to freedom.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call toll free 877-648-4838 or visit

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Copyright 2004 Tom Reed