Out of Town
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the Cincinnati bank of the Ohio River seemingly floats astride the pathway northward from Roebling's Suspension Bridge. The front entry undulates in a roundness like arms ready to wrap around whoever approaches. Walter Blackburn, who passed away in 2000, designed the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Indianapolis architect Walter Blackburn, who passed away from cancer before the building he designed opened, divined a curvilinear structure redolent with sensuous perception. Inside and out it presents stories about freedom's heroes, past and present, to challenge and inspire everyone "to take courageous steps for freedom today."
My first sighting of the Freedom Center was at night, as if I'd crossed northward as a 19th century freedom seeker from slavery. That person would have heaved up on the bank from a boat or a raft. I stepped off the bridge. Would I have had the courage and stamina to do it when there was no bridge, no assured safe passage, no hotel room five blocks away?
I returned the following morning, walking south along Vine Street from Cincinnati's Fountain Square. The shadow cast by the Freedom Center's three-story back wall of solid brick slanted across Second Street, forbidding, unwelcoming. Coming upon it from the city side, the center presents itself as an upraised arm whose hand, palm thrust outward, warns of danger. Yet, if someone is bent on proceeding forward, it is possible to slip between the slit, visible only when approached. Unseen entries are another of Blackburn's architectural metaphors. In this instance it is to honor the courage and tenacity of all who assisted in, and made the flight to, freedom.
The exterior expects to be walked around, examined, contemplated. From a historical standpoint, the location itself is awe-inspiring. Walkways signify the variety of paths taken to get here. A riverbed-image threads its way towards an opening. Rocks jut up. The three pavilions signify Courage, Cooperation, Perseverance; the cornerstones of Freedom.
It is a poem-structure in its spareness and imagery. Nothing is extraneous or wasted. Walls of vents hold the names of donors. In the shape of candle flames when seen from one direction and as tear drops when viewed from another, the vents mirror the center's logo and the eternally lit Freedom's Flame. Installed on the third floor balcony, the Flame is designed to cast its light across the Ohio into Covington, Ky. As a memorial to those who lit and followed the candles to safe havens along the escape route, it is equally a reminder of freedom's fragility.
The doorway feels like a maze. It's meant to. Nothing is easy here. Everything meanders, feels disorienting. The brochure forewarns: "Part of a new generation of cultural centers, known as museums of conscience, the Freedom Center guides you on a rich experiential journey unlike any other."
Just keep moving, I'm told by my guide. A first visit should be a walk-through. Subsequent visits are for depth and immersion.
Two hours are required to fully experience the second floor, and plan at least four hours for the third floor. It is dense with ideas and ironies. It provokes more questions than it answers. It tests attitudes, challenges what we value, asks how we are engaging in un-freedom issues today. No hiding in the past.
Issues emerge. Slavery began as economics. When it became entrenched in race and attached to religious interpretation, those enslaved couldn't ever get out. Lists and displays of products slavery supported prove this nation was built on the backs of enslaved individuals. The story about our nation's "language of freedom," which fails to apply to all people, is depicted as Jefferson's beautiful prose super-imposed over images of slave auctions, chain gangs, beatings.
A small circular space is an under-ocean scene of sunken slave ships that failed to make it across the middle passage. The ships' names are "Charity, Good Intent, Friendship, Le Fortune."
The 20th century section advises discretion. "Some images might not be suitable for children." Atrocities are hard to look at. The six ways the Freedom Center defines un-freedom today are slavery, hunger, illiteracy, tyranny, racism, genocide. Walls, floors and ceilings are aswirl with issues. It's like being in the eye of a storm.
In what was his final interview before his death in 2000, Walter Blackburn said, "We want it to be the Lincoln Memorial for African-Americans, so that when they say they are going to Cincinnati, they know they are going someplace."
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202
Ground-breaking: June 17, 2002
Dedication: Aug. 23, 2004
Building: A three-pavilion, 158,000-square-foot learning center
Architect: Walter Blackburn, Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis, in cooperation with BOORA Architects of Portland, Ore.
Exhibit Designer: Jack Rouse Associates of Cincinnati
toll free 877-648-4838
Tickets: Adults $12; Students with ID & seniors $10; Children $8
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day