Woody Keown, contemplating the future direction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, recognizes the need to bridge the past with the present while simultaneously enhancing the Freedom Center’s worth to the Cincinnati community.
“We realize that the story of this location is a big one that should be told much better, not just for the people of Cincinnati but also for people all across the country,” says Keown, Freedom Center President and COO. “The power of place is our central story as we strive to connect the vital role the Ohio River played in our country. We want to share that story locally, regionally and nationally because we believe doing so will attract more people to Cincinnati.”
The Freedom Center is located on the banks of the Ohio River, the great barrier that once separated the free state of Ohio from the slave state of Kentucky. In many ways, Ohio set a precedent for westward expansion. In 1803, Ohio was the first state in the Northwest Territory to join the Union, even before Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. Cincinnati grew to become the sixth-largest city in the country during the Underground Railroad era.
Chris Miller, Freedom Center’s Senior Director of Community Engagement, points out that the Freedom Center stands on the former site of Little Africa, one of the earliest Black settlement communities along the Ohio River. The individuals who resided in this region played significant roles in the Underground Railroad. “Little Africa was the gateway to freedom as approximately 40,000 freedom seekers trekked across hills and valleys and crossed the Ohio River, affectionately known as ‘the River Jordan,’ to escape slavery,” he explains.
While Cincinnatians think of The Banks as a highly desirable area today, it was swampy, mosquito-infested, unfarmable land back then. In addition, the Black Codes of 1803 and the Black Laws of 1807 restricted access and opportunities for people of African American descent. Despite these challenges, Little Africa was a thriving community full of robust personalities.
“The resiliency of the community shone through,” says Miller. “Not only the resistance towards the system of enslavement and the system of oppression through statewide legislation but also their resiliency to mitigate those challenges and be a resource for freedom seekers who needed shelter and protection.”
This location also played a vital role in the Civil War. The Black Brigade of Cincinnati was a military unit of African American soldiers organized in 1862 during the Civil War when Cincinnati was in danger of being seized by Confederate forces. The Black Brigade became the first organized African American group employed for military duty in the Civil War.
The Freedom Center plans to utilize these stories in a three-phase exhibit refresh, with the first phase expected to begin in mid-July and be completed by May 2025. The Freedom Center will continue to operate during this process.
In addition, the Freedom Center aims to establish a memorial park named “Gateway to Freedom,” which will be adorned with commemorative statues along a pathway leading visitors from the Freedom Center to the riverbank. Keown, expressing his desire to see this vision come to life, believes it will serve as a means of connecting the story of the Freedom Center to the Ohio River, Cincinnati and beyond.
Today, the banks of the Ohio River are home to an array of establishments, including condominiums, parks, businesses and green spaces. The Freedom Center was the catalyst for this development. Looking out his office window at the Roebling Bridge, Keown takes a moment to reflect.
“With all of the divisiveness around the country, we believe we have a responsibility to try to eliminate some of this discord and play more of a unifying role,” he says. “What better way to do it than trying to bring Kentucky, which was a slave state, and Ohio together to lead the nation in some way symbolically? By telling our story, reaching out and connecting better, the Freedom Center can do its part to bring healing to the nation.”
During the pandemic, the Freedom Center increased its online learning resources to ensure educators and families could access lesson plans and activities on significant stories like Little Africa and the Black Brigade of Cincinnati. These educational resources are accessible by visiting the Freedom Center’s website, freedomcenter.org.