By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Chilled by cool breezes coming off the Ohio River, the waterway tied so closely with this nation's slave era, African-American politicians looked around in awe Saturday as they toured the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
The $110 million museum remains under construction, its concrete skeleton, long sheets of insulation and piles of building materials offered few clues as to how the building will appear at its summer 2004 opening.
But 13 members of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus were nonetheless impressed. They put on hard hats Saturday afternoon to get a peek at the center.
State Rep. Barbara Sykes, an Akron Democrat and caucus president, said any museum that shares the stories of escaping slaves and relates their fight for freedom to modern-day civil rights issues can heal racial tensions across the nation.
She grew up poor in Arkansas. The poverty was a constant reminder, she said, that her forefathers were once slaves.
"This is us," she said. With this museum, "the hurt and the pain and the suffering will go away. This truly will help. We will continue to support you in any way we possibly can."
In the past four years, caucus members have helped raise more than $7 million in state funds for the Freedom Center's construction. Another $17.5 million still must be raised to reach the $110 million goal.
Sykes and other caucus members said Saturday that they're so determined to help because more people need to know about the nation's slave history.
They want others to learn of people like Margaret Garner, an escaped Kentucky slave who attempted to kill her children rather than allow them to be returned to slavery, and Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who had himself shipped in a box to Philadelphia after he was separated from his wife and children.
"While I'm a hometown person, I have a national and international outlook. I want to share with the nation what we have to be proud of," said state Rep. Tyrone K. Yates, a Cincinnati Democrat and caucus member.
"Cincinnati in this way is actually going to be a lantern, (leading the way for) the rest of the world to dialogue and talk about these important issues."
Spencer Crew, the Freedom Center's executive director, led caucus members on their tour. He was joined by John Pepper, the former Procter & Gamble chairman, and Edwin Rigaud, the Center's president. All three are leading the center's fund-raising efforts.
They showed the politicians the gripping TV commercials that are spreading the word about the Freedom Center.
One shows a young African-American girl beckoning her friend, a young white girl, to join her on the playground.
The friend rushes to join her but is stopped by her mother. The woman urges the child to play with a group of white children instead. The commercial ends with the child asking a simple "Why?" before the TV screen fades to black. The commercial ends with "Imagine the Power of One Voice" flashing across the screen.
"It really captures the essence of how we see ourselves functioning," said Crew of the commercials. "I'm not sure there's anything like this (center) between Chicago and Charlottesville. There is greatness in what we are achieving together here in Ohio.
"We are using cultural and educational resources to move forward in the ongoing struggle for freedom, so that we inspire heroes of every race to help lead this country into a more hopeful and just society. We thank you."
The Freedom Center already has received 29 $1 million-plus donations.
To learn more about the fund-raising effort, visit www.freedomcenter.org.
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