Slavery Under Glass

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CINCINNATI: A gallery at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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The project was first conceived 11 years ago by Robert C. Harrod, executive director of the regional chapter of what was then called the National Conference of Christians and Jews, now the National Conference of Community and Justice. His hope was that it could help improve race relations in Cincinnati — it was only in 2002 that the Ku Klux Klan stopped its annual mounting of a Christmas tree in the city's main square. The desire for reconciliation is built into the center's DNA. Its focus, says Spencer Crew, its executive director, "is not about finger pointing."

More than that, it also aims to be America's first therapeutic museum, a place intended not just to arouse feelings but also to discharge them safely. Partly out of concern that people might exit the exhibition galleries with unresolved feelings of guilt (whites), anger (blacks) and resentment (both), the center offers the option of a final room that is not a gallery of any kind but a space for discussion. Trained facilitators will encourage visitors to examine their feelings and share them — without shouting.

But "productive, positive, uplifting"--is this any way to tell a story so full of suffering? Well, maybe it is. For one thing, the Freedom Center is in many respects still the thing it professes not to be, a museum of slavery. Its largest feature is a slave cabin, rescued from a Kentucky farm once owned by a slave dealer, that lets visitors imagine themselves in the cramped space where dozens of slaves were crammed. And by far the longest of the center's display areas is a sequence of galleries devoted to the history of slave labor, the miseries of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic from Africa, and the resistance struggles that eventually led to emancipation. Visitors can see an image of the scarred back of a whipped slave and hear actors reading the testimonies of slaves who described the suffering they endured.

Yet, by placing so much stress on the system of escape routes for runaways, the center takes the risk of inflating the real importance of the Underground Railroad. By some estimates, of the 4 million slaves in the U.S. when the Civil War began, no more than 100,000 probably benefited from the system. But that emphasis is essential for the center to sustain its uplifting message. Its next significant section of exhibits, the "Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes," offers portraits and touch-screen information about a whole spectrum of figures from throughout the world who fought for the rights of religious and racial minorities, women, gays and just about anyone who ever stood up against an oppressive system. That leads in turn to a final area, called "The Struggle Continues," where interactive computer displays allow you to learn about ongoing efforts against oppression, hunger, illiteracy, bigotry and actual modern-day slavery.

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