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Painful past, hopeful legacy

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio honors those who helped slaves escape and hopes to inspire cultural conscience.

August 08, 2004|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

The $110-million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened last week in Cincinnati, hopes to do more than tell the epic history of the clandestine effort to free slaves from the pre-Civil War South.

Spencer Crew, executive director and chief executive, called the center "a cultural institution of conscience," comparing it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

"We're trying to get people to think of their role and responsibilities in society," inspired by the informal network of interracial activists who helped transport slaves to freedom across state and sometimes national lines, he said.

To that end, the center, backed by public and private funding that includes $1 million from talk-show magnate Oprah Winfrey, explores contemporary issues, such as the status of migrant workers.

But the center also aims to provide diverse experiences for tourists, including children.

The centerpiece is a 27-by-30-foot, two-story wooden "slave pen," shipped to the museum from a farm in Mason County, Ky., and thought to date at least to the 1830s. Up to 70 slaves awaiting sale were confined there, Crew said.

In "Escape! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad," designed for fourth- to eighth-graders, children follow the journey of a fictional young slave contemplating escape, trying to balance desire for freedom against leaving family. Participants try to determine whom they can trust to guard the slave's secret along the way.

"Brothers of the Borderland" theater, narrated by Winfrey, tells the story of a young woman escaping from Kentucky to Ohio and finally to Canada.

Ohio harbored many key stops on the Underground Railroad, and the museum's architecture is designed to evoke the flowing waters of the Ohio River.

The center's celebrity-studded grand opening is Aug. 23, but visitors have been welcome since last week. Exhibits are open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Monday. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for those ages 6 to 12 and free for those younger than 6. (877) 648-4838,

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