Sunday, March 30, 1997
Underground Railroad Museum
is real chance for greatness

The Cincinnati Enquirer

As I listened to Ed Rigaud describe the Underground Railroad here, I wondered how we grew so far apart. I don't mean Ed and me. We work in the same building, and no doubt I flatter myself, but it appears to me that our thinking is very close on many things.

Even though he is black and I am white. Even though he is a man and I am a woman. Even though he is a loyal Proctoid, and I sometimes buy Colgate toothpaste and Maxwell House coffee.

A vice president, he is on two-year loan from Procter & Gamble to get the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on track. It is, quite simply, the most important project pending in this city. Maybe in the country.

Yes, I know. We need a new Contemporary Arts Center, an expanded convention center, stadiums, department stores, an SCPA auditorium for our ''world-class city.''

Distinguished history

But what of our reputation? Cincinnati would not, I think, find itself named the Most Livable City in North America for People of Color. And this is after such a promising beginning, such a distinguished history.

''We were the gateway to freedom,'' Ed says. ''Over half the escaped slaves came through this corridor.'' The Ohio River, the river Jordan of song, divided slave and free states, making us one of the busiest terminals in the Underground Railway system. Some historians say we were responsible for its name.

When Tice Davis swam across the Ohio in 1831, a slaveholder fumed, ''The damned abolitionists must have a railroad by which they run off slaves.'' It was, of course, really a secret network of safe houses and very brave conductors.

And the bravest people were here. Levi Coffin, a Quaker and abolitionist ''president'' of the Underground Railroad, rescued more than 3,000 slaves. Salmon P. Chase, a fierce defender of slaves, said, ''If a slave set foot on free soil, they should be free.'' Radical thinking at that time, and if I may say so, it must have been harder to be brave in the thick of things than from someplace like Maine.

Freedman, businessman

My personal favorite is John Parker, a man who bought his own freedom for $1,800, then started an iron foundry and machine shop in Ripley. An inventor, he had five patents on his designs for farm machinery. By day, he was a businessman. By night, a conductor.

''A more fearless creature never lived,'' said the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune shortly after his death. ''He gloried in danger. He would go boldly over into the enemy's camp and filch the fugitives to freedom.''

According to Mr. Parker's newly published autobiography, His Promised Land, edited by Stuart Seely Sprague (Norton, $20), he was personally responsible for the freedom of at least 900 people.

Ed and I sit in his office, overlooking the river, and wonder if we'd have been brave. He says he wouldn't have been, but I don't believe him. He has faced down racism large and small his whole life.

And his sweet, gap-toothed smile never wavers. Nor his determination. He has grace. And generosity.

''For the first time in our history,'' Ed says about the Underground Railroad, ''blacks and whites came together for a lofty goal. We should be able to do it again. It will bring us down if we don't.''

What happened to black people in the 1800s is not my fault, he says, or the fault of any living person today. What matters is what we do now. Right now.

Wouldn't it be world-class, big-league, Blue Chip and first-rate if the world came here to see a shrine to the black and white heroes of the Underground Railroad? Wouldn't it be terrific if we were known as the place where racism stopped? We could be the place where America got together again.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.