Learning FromThe Past

A reverence for its past is revitalizing a very needy downtown Cincinnati. In August, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened on the banks of the Ohio River, once the dividing line between the slaveholding South and the free North. The venture brings a host of powerful names to the table and also creates a new voice in the dialogue on American history.

“The Freedom Center brings to life the inspiring, heroic stories of courage, cooperation, and perseverance in the pursuit of freedom, especially from Underground Railroad history,” said Steve DeVillez, the Freedom Center’s spokesperson. “We provide forums for inclusive dialogue and encourage every individual to take a journey that advances freedom and personal growth.”

Museums depend on public interest as much as hefty donations to stay afloat. With an annual operating budget of $10 million and a campaign goal of $110 million (with $102 million raised so far), the project has already drawn in high-profile “partners” such as Oprah Winfrey, Deloitte & Touche, Boeing, Xerox, Coca-Cola, and Sara Lee. “We are confident that we will have additional funding,” DeVillez says. “We are expecting an additional $7.5 million from the state of Ohio and $2.8 million from the federal level. The state funds are expected by the end of 2004.”

Cincinnati’s museum adds to a growing wave of black interest institutions, most notably the National Slavery Museum that Virginia plans to open by 2007. But some institutions are still floundering. Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History nearly closed before political and business leaders donated $1 million to meet operational costs for fiscal 2005. DeVillez expects that with a quarter million visitors a year and continued support from a long list of partners, the struggles the Freedom Center will tell won’t be financial.