Since opening in 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has told the stories of the heroes of freedom. It’s a museum of conscience, an education center, a creator of dialogue, and a beacon of light for inclusive freedom around the globe. Now the museum hopes to reach even more people both in Cincinnati and beyond with its new strategic plan of three core pillars: education, inspiration and advocacy. 

“When COVID hit, we had the opportunity to reconnect with the community,” says Woodrow Keown Jr., president and chief operating officer. “We realized we needed key resources to help drive our strategy, so we added a director of education, as well as an experienced and professional curator to oversee our collections.” 

Dr. Amy Bottomley was brought on as the Freedom Center’s new director of educational initiatives. Bottomley’s first initiative was to promote equity in education. She did so by creating a social justice curriculum focused on historically underrepresented voices. Starting with the Underground Railroad movement and moving to the present, Bottomley developed a series of materials designed to aid in classroom discussions and provide students with a more inclusive study of all U.S. history. 

“One of the Freedom Center’s goals is to help students develop critical thinking and literacy skills,” Bottomley says. “A big part of that is seeking out multiple perspectives in order to have a more inclusive and truer understanding of the past.” 

Bottomley hopes students will utilize the skills they learn so they can become better civic participants and critical thinkers. 

“We need citizens who value facts and who can identify credible and non-credible information,” Bottomley says. “When you make history a living, breathing thing that is relevant to what is going on in current, modern-day society — things directly impacting students right now and in the future — you empower them to do something about it and not just passively intake information. It really motivates and excites students to learn.” 

To extend its educational reach beyond the classroom, the Freedom Center offers a variety of youth-oriented programs. The Teen Docent program runs throughout the year. A docent is a guide in a museum, and students have the opportunity to practice while also learning about history and current events. The Freedom Center also hosts a series of virtual youth summits. The Fall Youth Summit: Lights, Camera, Representation saw high school students discuss representation in the media with a group of panelists that included New York Times bestselling author Kate Clifford Larsen, playwright Deondra Means, and Miami University senior Chelsea Cozad. 

“It’s a chance for young people to get involved and have their voices heard,” Bottomley says. “Any opportunity to give young people a voice is important.” 

Bottomley has also been hard at work creating virtual experiences and workshops, which will allow the Freedom Center to extend its reach beyond the Greater Cincinnati area. “We’re the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and we want to be the go-to spot for social justice education research and materials.” 

For people looking to connect the past to the present in a tangible way, the Freedom Center hired Dr. Stephanie Lampkin as their new curator. Lampkin first assessed the Freedom Center’s collections to pinpoint the areas where it could introduce more African American- inspired cultural items. Lampkin realized her focus needed to be on the Underground Railroad movement, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, and today. 

“We’re linking moments in history to current events through objects, historical documents, paintings — these items resonate with our visitors and open a dialogue. Our collections also support teachers looking for resources when discussing sensitive topics with their students.” 

Lampkin’s other objective is to ensure new collections reflect the Freedom Center’s values in truth-telling. 

“We’re always thinking about which stories we aim to preserve and share,” Lampkin says. “Our goal is to not sugarcoat anything. We’re sharing the point of view of people who are still being impacted by historical events.” 

As Lampkin continues to develop new experiences within the Freedom Center, Keown hopes to take collections beyond the physical structure. 

“We want the Freedom Center to be more visual,” Keown says. “We want to reengage with the community and reestablish the brand. We want to curate traveling exhibitions that will be seen across the country. We want to physically go into classrooms. We’ve had several teachers reach out and ask about our programming. It indicates to us that there is still a lot of interest in American History.” 

The Freedom Center is currently hosting a special exhibition titled “Luba Lukova: Designing Justice.” The exhibit runs from October 8, 2021, until March 22, 2022. Lukova’s thought-provoking imagery covers a range of topics, from income equality to the environment.


Want to support the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s education initiatives and new collections? Visit freedomcenter.org to learn more.