BY TOM O'NEILL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Entertainers, corporate executives and civil rights leaders Monday joined an $80 million fund-raising campaign to bring the story of the Underground Railroad home to Cincinnati.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, to grace the city's riverfront by 2002, will offer a detailed view of the secret system of transporting fugitive slaves prior to the Civil War, focusing on the role of white abolitionists but also on the lesser-known accounts of free former slaves and fugitive slaves who risked their lives for others' freedom.
Organizers say the museum will provide a compelling reason to visit the Queen City. Cincinnati was a key stop on the Underground Railroad, a loose network of ''safe houses,'' because the Ohio River was the boundary between slave states and free.
Specific design plans are expected before the end of this year. About half the money will be raised locally, from corporations, foundations and individuals. The location will depend on where new baseball and football stadiums are placed.
''We can learn Cincinnati was significant as a place that symbolized freedom. ... Slaves were in sight of freedom (from the south shore of the Ohio River),'' said project historical adviser James Horton, professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Between 600,000 and 1 million visitors are expected annually, with a yearly infusion into the local economy of about $17 million, organizers said, citing economic impact studies. The museum will feature ''story theaters'' and ''exploratory roads.''
''The primary focal point is of the renewal of spirit and commitment of bondsmen (fugitive slaves) and abolitionists,'' said Cincinnati Vice Mayor Tyrone Yates. ''Most unknown, saints all.''
Other speakers at a news conference at Cinergy headquarters included Vernon E. Jordan Jr., former president of the National Urban League; Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit; and Enquirer President and Publisher Harry M. Whipple.
They are joined on the national advisory board by 38 others, including former NBC Today show host Bryant Gumbel, music producer Quincy Jones, Dick Cheney, former U.S. secretary of defense; Myrlie Evers-Williams, chairwoman of the NAACP board of directors and widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers; John E. Pepper, chairman of the board and CEO of Procter & Gamble; and Paul A. Allaire, chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp.
Those people were included, organizers said, because they share a commitment to the project and because they lend national name recognition to fund raising. The board also will have a hand in developing plans for the museum.
The fund raising includes construction costs and $10 million in initial operating costs, and already, Cincinnati corporations are stepping up.
Mr. Pepper announced a $3 million grant from Procter & Gamble, which he said was only the second P&G donation of that size. The other was for the Aronoff Center.
While the event Monday was as much about raising awareness as funds, speakers also provided their own stories about the road through Cincinnati.
Mr. Jordan told a story about his experience with segregation in the Cincinnati area that occurred nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery.
As a student at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., from 1953-57, he was traveling with a Purdue University student back home to Atlanta during the holiday break.
Arriving at the Cincinnati train station, the two were met by a black worker whose primary assignment was to direct whites into the whites-only cars, and blacks to their own car.
''He'd say 'that way' and we'd say, 'no, THAT way,'' Mr. Jordan said, as if pointing to the whites-only car. And they made it on, only to realize - somewhat ironically - that all the fun and laughter seemed to be on the blacks-only car.
The anecdote of the road wasn't lost on Patricia Ellis, an African-American studies teacher at Hamilton High School. For six years, Mrs. Ellis has been taking groups of students on tours of African heritage that include bus rides to Michigan and Canada, where they visit stops on the Underground Railroad.
The program, which started with 40 students, has doubled. Students now come from Cincinnati, Dayton, Middletown, Westerville and as far as Atlanta.
''I'm so charged up,'' said Mrs. Ellis. ''Kids on the tour learn history, but also how to live today and appreciate each other and all cultures. The Underground Railroad museum will help advance this.''
Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, speaking before the announcement, said a bill to be resubmitted to Congress in two weeks would call for an unprecedented alliance between the museum project and the National Parks Service.
The alliance wouldn't make the freedom center a part of the park service, which could dip into the service's dwindling federally funded budget, but would allow technical assistance.
Kimbra Postlewaite contributed to this report.