National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

From Academic Kids

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National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a museum in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio based on the history of the Underground Railroad. The Center also pays tribute to all efforts to "abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people." Billed as part of a new group of "museums of conscience," along with the Museum of Tolerance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum, the Center offers lessons on the struggle for freedom in the past, in the present, and for the future as it attempts to challenge visitors to contemplate the meaning of freedom in their own lives. Its location recognizes the significant role of Cincinnati, where thousands of slaves escaped to freedom by crossing the Ohio River, in the history of the Underground Railroad.


The structure

After ten years of planning and fundraising, the $110 million Freedom Center opened to the public on August 3, 2004; official opening ceremonies took place on August 23. The 158,000 square foot (15,000 m²) structure was designed by Blackburn Architects (architect of record) of Indianapolis and BOORA Architects (design architect) of Portland, Oregon with three pavilions celebrating courage, cooperation and perseverance. The exterior features rough travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy on the east and west faces of the building, and copper panels on the north and south. According to one of its primary architects, the late Walter Blackburn, the building's "undulating quality" illustrates the fields and the river that escaping slaves crossed to reach freedom. First Lady Laura Bush and Muhammad Ali attended the groundbreaking ceremony on June 17, 2002.

Slave pen

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The Slave Pen, the principal artifact at the Freedom Center, was transported from its original location and reconstructed on the second floor of the Center

The center's principal artifact is a 21 by 30 foot (6 by 9 m), two-story log slave pen built in 1830 that was used to house slaves being shipped to auction. The structure was moved from a farm in Mason County, Kentucky and now dominates the second-floor atrium where visitors encounter it again and again while traversing the other exhibits. It can also be seen through the Center's large windows from the downtown street outside.

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An original feature of the Slave Pen is this shackle ring in the second floor joist, used to secure male slaves

The pen was originally owned by Captain John Anderson, a Revolutionary War soldier. Slaves waiting to be transported from Dover, Kentucky to slave markets in Natchez, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana were imprisoned there for a few days or several months, waiting for favorable market conditions and higher selling prices. It has eight small windows, the original stone floor from a large chimney and fireplace, and a row of wrought iron rings (see photo at right) through which a central chain ran, tethering men on either side of the chain. Male slaves were held on the second floor, while women remained on the first floor and used the fireplace for cooking.

"The pen is powerful," says Carl B. Westmoreland, curator and senior adviser to the museum. "It has the feeling of hallowed ground. When people stand inside, they speak in whispers. It is a sacred place. I believe it is here to tell a story - the story of the internal slave trade to future generations." Visitors to the museum can walk through the holding pen and touch its walls. Taken from records kept by slave traders in the area who used the pen, the first names of some of the slaves believed to have been held in the pen are listed on a wooden slab in the pen's interior.

Westmoreland spent three and a half years uncovering the story of the slave jail. "We're just beginning to remember. There is a hidden history right below the surface, part of the unspoken vocabulary of the American historic landscape. It's nothing but a pile of logs, yet it is everything."

Other features

Other prominent features of the Center include:

  • The "Suite for Freedom" Theater where three animated films address the fragile nature of freedom throughout human history, particularly as related to the Underground Railroad and the institution of slavery in the United States.
  • The "ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers" presentation and interactive display about the Underground Railroad where school groups and families with young children are presented with choices on an imaginary escape attempt. The gallery features information about figures like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and orator Frederick Douglass.
  • The film, "Brothers of the Borderland," highlighting the story of the Underground Railroad in Ripley, Ohio along the Ohio River and the roles of conductors John Parker and Reverend John Rankin.
  • Information about the history of slavery and those who opposed it, including John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War.
  • "The Struggle Continues," an exhibit depicting the ongoing challenges confronted by African-Americans since the end of slavery, ongoing struggles for freedom in today's world, and ways that the Underground Railroad has inspired groups in India, Poland and South Africa.
  • The John Parker Library which houses a collection of multimedia materials about the Underground Railroad and freedom-related issues.
  • The FamilySearch Center where visitors can investigate their own roots.

The Freedom Centerís Executive Director and CEO, Spencer Crew, was previously the director of the Smithsonian Institutionís National Museum of American History.



Adults $12
Students with ID: $10
Seniors (64+): $10
Children (6-12): $8

Freedom Center hours:

Museum: Tuesday–Sunday: 11:00 am–5:00 pm
John Parker Library: Tuesday–Thursday: 10:30 am–5:00 pm
FamilySearch Center: Wednesday & Friday: 10:30 am–5:00 pm


50 East Freedom Way
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202


  • Bauer, Marilyn (February 8, 2004). Slave pen now holds history ( The Cincinnati Enquirer.
  • Brown, Patricia Leigh (May 6, 2003). In a Barn, a Piece of Slavery's Hidden Past. The New York Times.

External links


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