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Stories > National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

It is fitting that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center sits on the Cincinnati riverfront, for it was along this part of the shoreline that hundreds of slaves in the 1800s took their first steps toward freedom after crossing the Ohio River.

The Freedom Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, opened in 2004 after more than a decade of planning. The idea was originally posed as a way to honor the 50th anniversary of the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice. Because the region had been a center of abolitionist activity and network of safe houses on the Underground Railroad, the idea of a small museum to honor these activities seemed fitting.

The project grew in scope and size and, in the end, became an undertaking with a number of ambitious goals, including to present the history of slavery in America to spark a dialogue about our past, present and future, and the reality of slavery elsewhere in the world today. And the most ambitious objective: to inspire visitors to do something about it.

“From Slavery to Freedom” traces three centuries of slavery in the U.S., showing how slaves lived, worked and survived. Brothers of the Borderland, a 25-minute film narrated in part by Oprah Winfrey, depicts the journey of an escaping slave who makes her way across the river and the courageous acts of two of the area’s leading abolitionists, John Parker and the Rev. John Rankin. “Invisible: Slavery Today” is the world’s first permanent exhibit that shows how slavery persists today in many forms and places around the world.

The most dramatic display occupies the central hall of the Freedom Center: an actual slave pen, built in the early 1800s and moved from a farm in Kentucky. Visitors can step inside the structure where hundreds of slaves were held before being sold. The marks they carved into the wooden posts are still visible.

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