Sunday, June 16, 2002

Freedom Center our chance
to reclaim good name




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        I hope they run out of candles Monday night. I hope everybody needs a hanky when the choir crosses the river. And, most of all, I hope we get back something that belongs to us. Our good reputation.

        This place along the Ohio River was where more than half the escaped slaves first set foot on free soil. We were known as the Gateway to Freedom.

        Let's face it: This is not the phrase that springs to mind these days in connection with Cincinnati. But we have history on our side. We do not have to invent a reputation. We simply have to reclaim it.

        This is the home of Levi Coffin, who rescued more than 3,000 slaves. And Salmon P. Chase, who insisted, “If a slave set foot on free soil, they should be free.” Radical thinking at that time, and it must have been harder to be brave in the thick of things than from someplace like Maine.

Black and white heroes

        Former slave John Parker started an iron foundry and machine shop in Ripley. By day, he was a businessman. By night, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. “A more fearless creature never lived,” said the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune shortly after his death.

        The black and white heroes will be celebrated Monday night at the groundbreaking of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “We don't know how many people will show up,” says center spokesman Ernest Britton, “but we expect thousands.”

        First lady Laura Bush will be there. And Muhammad Ali. Jack Kemp. Gov. Bob and Hope Taft. The Bucket Boys. Famous Amos. Nick Clooney. the Over-the-Rhine Steel Drum Band. And this being Cincinnati, there will be plenty of food.

        General Electric has ordered 10,000 battery-operated candles to give away. I hope they need 10 times that many.

Celebrity guests

        A family festival begins at 7 p.m. at the foot of the Suspension Bridge, west of Paul Brown Stadium on Mehring Way. The formal program begins at 8:30, which is when Mrs. Bush is scheduled to speak. At 9 p.m. Muhammad Ali will light a symbolic flame. Then, a community choir of more than 500 voices will begin marching from both sides of the Ohio River, meeting in the center of the Suspension Bridge.

        They'll be holding candles and singing. This will be the signal for the crowd to turn on their candles.

        And if the sight of thousands of lights along the riverfront, if the sounds of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice” don't make the back of your throat ache, you are made of stone.

        Admission is free, and information is available at www.undergroundrailroad.org.

        Ed Rigaud, who has been the steadfast spirit behind the spirit of the Freedom Center, said the Underground Railroad was when “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, Ed told me once, or the fault of any living person today. What matters is what we do right now.

        Right here.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.

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