Slavery Under Glass

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CINCINNATI: A gallery at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Although most visitors to the new Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, will approach it from the side facing downtown, that's actually the rear of the building. The glass-walled main entry is on the other side, facing south across the banks of the Ohio River. The center turns its face in that direction for good reason. The river is at the heart of the story it will tell. In the mid-19th century, those waters were a fateful dividing line. Separating free-soil Ohio from slave-owning Kentucky, they were a desperate crossing point for runaway slaves. The river's north banks were the site of persistent low-intensity warfare between abolitionists and armed slave owners, who were permitted by law to pursue their human "property" into free states. In that era of escalating confrontation, Cincinnati and nearby towns became important way stations in the Underground Railroad, the informal network of safe houses, sympathetic whites and free blacks who helped conduct escaped slaves to safety.

The Freedom Center, which has its grand opening this week, is part of a wave of more than 20 new museums dedicated to African-American history that are now in development around the country. They include the U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., the International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C., the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African History and Culture in Baltimore, Md. Add to those the numerous locales from the 20th century civil rights movement, like the Montgomery, Ala., bus stop where Rosa Parks was arrested, that are increasingly being turned into monuments and pilgrimage points, and it's clear that the story of African-American life, for so long passed over in near silence, is finally being set down in stone.

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All the same, telling the part of that story concerning slavery can be tricky. Any museum needs to inspire and instruct. It also needs to bring in paying customers. But if you build it out of bullwhips, will they come? Slavery is one of the most shameful chapters of American history, and shameful stories are not the kind that everybody wants to pay $12--the adult admission fee at the Freedom Center — to hear. Whites may shy away from displays that implicitly indict them. Even some blacks are ambivalent about how to treat the knowledge that their ancestors were once bought and sold. Ten years ago, Colonial Williamsburg, the open-air museum in Williamsburg, Va., presented an outdoor re-enactment of a 1773 estate auction that included the sale of slaves. The hope may have been that the performance would help Williamsburg fight off criticism that it tended to sugarcoat the rough realities of colonial history. But the re-enactment was met by a public protest organized by the Virginia coordinator of the N.A.A.C.P., who complained that it turned pain into entertainment.

"There is a reluctance on the part of African Americans and whites to deal with slavery," says former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, who conceived the National Slavery Museum, scheduled to open in 2007. "People don't want to discuss it. 'Let's get past it,' they say. Well, I say that attitude is insulting to our history. We need to develop a conscious awareness of how far we've come and who we are."

The museum envisioned by Wilder, a descendant of slaves, will unabashedly be a museum about the brutal merchandising of human beings. The Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which cost $110 million to build and hopes to attract 250,000 visitors each year, has wider ambitions. Or looked at another way, it's more circumspect about its approach to a difficult subject. Even the center's name sidesteps the loaded word slavery. By taking the Underground Railroad as its focus, the center gets to emphasize biracial resistance, not racial victimization, a rare triumph of black and white cooperation in those days, not the far more customary story of white oppression. "The story of the Underground Railroad allows you to talk about slavery in a way that's productive, positive and uplifting," says Ed Rigaud, the center's president.

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