BY CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati's riverfront will be home to a $70 million Underground Railroad museum within the next five years, a group leading the effort is expected to announce today.
Aided by a $3 million grant from Procter & Gamble Co., the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Board of Trustees is expected to start its major fund-raising campaign at an afternoon press conference. The center would be the first national museum in Cincinnati and one of the few major museums focused on African-American history in America.
"We want it to touch the heart as well as the mind," said Edwin J. Rigaud, the center's director. "The Holocaust museum (in Washington, D.C.) is a good model for it, but it's a very different story than the Holocaust. We have a lot of examples of the quest for freedom, of interracial cooperation."
The center will be the first major museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad, the secret network of abolitionists and ex-slaves who helped slaves sneak through the South into free states from about the beginning of the 1800s through the Civil War.
"The Underground Railroad is one of those things that most people know by name but have trouble putting into context," said James Horton, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a consultant on the project. "This museum will help do that."
While the exact location of the museum has not been decided because the sites for two new sports stadiums haven't been determined, it will be on the riverfront somewhere between Sawyer Point and the Brent Spence Bridge. Mr. Rigaud said the site will be chosen in the coming months and the committee plans to have the museum built and open by 2002.
The location has symbolic importance - being close to the Public Landing, where many slaves escaped from river boats and close to Bucktown, the black neighborhood near what is now Sawyer Point, where many slaves hid from slave catchers.
"This area is really a gateway to freedom in an historical sense," Mr. Rigaud said.
Today's news comes after almost two years of planning by the committee and Mr. Rigaud, an executive on loan from Procter & Gamble for the project.
Expected to be on hand for today's announcement will be Vernon Jordan Jr., a Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney and former head of the National Urban League, and John E. Pepper, chairman of Procter & Gamble, both members of the committee's advisory board. Officials also will announce that the Procter & Gamble Fund will be donating $3 million over the next three years to aid the project. Enquirer Publisher Harry Whipple and federal appellate Judge Nathaniel Jones are co-chairmen of the center's board.
Names of other national personalities on the advisory committee are expected to be announced today.
Fund-raising is the next big hurdle for the committee. On top of the $70 million to get the museum up and running, Mr. Rigaud said the group wants to raise another $10 million to defray operation costs in the future. About $40 million must be raised locally, and another $40 million nationally. He expects to have to raise about 70 percent from private sources and the rest from state and local governments.
Museum supporters believe they can get the land for little or no money from either the city or Robert H. Castellini, who owns land in the area. Mr. Castellini is on the Underground Railroad Museum steering committee.
According to an executive report on the project obtained by The Enquirer, the center will be a multimedia complex of about 125,000 square feet. By comparison, the Museum Center at Union Terminal - which houses several museums and an Omnimax Theater - has 500,000 square feet. The Holocaust museum in Washington is 265,000 square feet.
The Underground Railroad museum will have guided tours, a research section and a genealogy section. Detailed studies for the center, the report stated, show that between 600,000 to 1 million people could visit the museum annually.
The report estimates that the museum will have about a $1.1 million operating shortfall annually, but the center could cover costs with national donations and endowment interest.
According to studies in the report, the center would bring in about $17 million a year in direct and indirect business for Cincinnati.
Mr. Rigaud said he hoped the center would help racial reconciliation by carefully examining America's racial history.
"If it could be a way to help racial healing, we'd have a real jewel here in Cincinnati," he said.
Mr. Rigaud said the main question he's asked about this project is "Why Cincinnati?" Mr. Rigaud said history provides that answer.
Slaves escaped from all over the southeastern United States to the North, but Cincinnati and the surrounding area was a major escape route, according to historians. At the time, the Ohio River was a major dividing line between slave and free states. While it was legal for someone to own slaves in Kentucky, it was illegal in Ohio and Indiana. In the 1850s, about 4 million people were slaves and about 500,000 black people were free in the North.
Because of its location, Cincinnati was a hotbed for the abolition movement. Many whites, perceived by many at the time as radicals, helped slaves hide from slave catchers as they made their way north in Ohio, to Lebanon and Sandusky, as well as to Canada.
The Underground Railroad strained relations between the North, which generally favored abolition, and the South, which thought the escapes amounted to theft of their property. The question of slavery led to the Civil War, this nation's bloodiest conflict.
Throughout the years, the dramatic slave escapes have been romanticized in literature.
At the time, the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe recounted the plight of slaves seeking freedom and galvanized the abolitionist movement.
In 1988, Toni Morrison's novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for its story of a Cincinnati-area woman who kills her own daughter rather than see her captured by slave catchers.
Professor Horton said "there is a great deal of excitement in the scholarly community" about the museum, and he is planning a major symposium on the Underground Railroad next year in the Queen City.
Mr. Horton also said he hoped that museum will help modern Americans come to understand its multiracial past.
"The hunger for freedom in the human spirit is a message for our time," he said.
Mr. Rigaud said that after today's announcement, the group will have architects draw up specific designs and it will try to nail down the exact location of the museum. Once it has a definite site, it will begin soliciting companies and individuals for donations to pay for construction.
He said the group needs about $1 million to get that design work done and to begin the campaign.
So far, several local companies and individuals have given money to the committee, including United Dairy Farmers, Cincinnati Bell, attorney Stanley Chesley and The Enquirer.
Bob Wehling, president of the Procter & Gamble Fund, said he was sure the museum will raise enough money to open.
"This community always steps up to the plate to get the important things done," he said.
Greater Cincinnati sites mark the line of liberty for runaway slaves
Feb. 7, 1997