Almost every where you visit in the U.S.A. you will find studded with museums, historic homes as well as monuments like the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and Farmington House. In fact you’ll see monuments everywhere in the U.S. in small towns and big cities,in parks,libraries,churchyards, cemeteries,.along city streets and highways and even on mountainsides. This seems like a sustained and well co-ordinated effort to create an indelible and well commemorated past compensating for its glaring absence at the inception of what was to be this great country in the 18th century.
Monuments, it is said, help tell the story of a people. They define a nation’s values and help preserve its memories. The word ‘monument’ which comes from Latin means, “that which reminds.” Monuments are public reminders of who a people are and where they have come from. A monument beckons everyone “pay attention, this is a bit of our past that deserves our respect.” Lonnie Bunch former Smithsonian curator, president of the Chicago Historical Society and now the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, therefore states succinctly: “In many ways, there are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history.” Some people even think of monuments and the grounds around them as sacred places. Others view them as art forms to be appreciated as well as to delight.
One great age of monument building in the United States was the last half of the 19th century, after the Civil War. Another era of monument building began at the end of the 20th century, and it continues even up to today. America has monuments to pay tribute to and remember various people, places, events, wars, as well as even ideals.
Whilst on a Study of the U.S. program in 2006 I was part of a day’s trip to Cincinnati viewing an important monument which was actually an exhibition revolving around Blacks and their slave heritage in the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in the company of 17 international visitors drawn from all the continents of the world: Africa, Europe, South America, Middle East and the Far East.. Our visit to this exhibition was the culmination of a four hour drive out of Louisville coming across on the interstates long trailers bringing in goods of varying sorts to the land-locked city across the bridge spanning the famous Ohio River unto Cincinnati. Actually I was expecting this exhibition to be underground beside or even across an old railroad, as suggested by the name. But then it happened to be an imposing four story concrete structure with brown tiled finishing standing tall amidst others overlooking the historic Ohio River.
Ten years of planning and fundraising, led up to its opening to the public on August 3, 2004; followed by its official opening on August 23 at which the then First Lady Laura Bush, one of the financial sponsors, was present, I learnt.
It now strands proudly amongst the many famous monuments in the United States.
To coincide with its opening, the Freedom Center sought design packages for a monument honoring the importance of the Underground Railroad in American history. School groups were invited to submit designs out of which the most outstanding were exhibited on their web site.
The 158,000 square foot (15,000 m²) structure was designed by Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis and BOORA Architects (design) of Portland, Oregon with three pavilions celebrating courage, cooperation and perseverance. The exterior features rough travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy on the east and west faces of the building, and copper panels on the north and south. According to one of its primary architects, the late Walter Blackburn, the building’s “undulating quality” illustrates the fields and the river that escaping slaves crossed to reach freedom
The Freedom Center is more than just a museum and cultural center where you watch relics of the past depicting slavery and you move out. It is a meeting point for engaging and confronting the issues that succeed slavery in unshackling man’s freedom as well. Here guests become engaged in a life-long dialogue about the meaning and importance of freedom in their own lives and in the world around them.
Various stories about struggles to maintain freedom are revealed through interactive multimedia such as drama, visual pictorial exhibits, sculptures, murals, films and talks involving, freedom heroes from the era of the Underground Railroad onto contemporary times.
The core of the experience there centers around the dramatic narrative of the Underground Railroad, which is the secret network through which many of the enslaved made their way north to freedom in the decades before the American civil war. Cincinnati was a major junction in that whole network. More than 100,000 enslaved peoples sought freedom through it as they traveled north, often going as far as Canada or even south up to Mexico. This lasted for more than three decades. Songs and quilt clothes were often used as means of passing on messages of intentions to escape. When quilts made on plantations were hung outside to air out in plain view, their patterns were actually a means to warn some to get ready for the long journey to freedom. Escaping slaves sought refuge in safe houses owned by people like the Quakers, Levi Coffin and his wife, Catherine.
This $ 100 million Freedom Center consists of three connected pavilions designed to reflect the winding, natural course of the Ohio River, beside which it is located, as well as the often changing path to freedom demanding courage, cooperation and perseverance which are all celebrated here. Our visit to this four-floored building started off with an introduction to the center by Dr Spencer Crew the center’s executive director then with about four murals made out of fiber animating the walls and compelling snapshots of them from almost all of us. Then a hefty black American in black tailcoat moves with effort and grief to the stage recalling dramatically and plaintively the woes of the Blacks from their capture in Africa onto their harrowing and debilitating journey across the Atlantic onto America where the ordeals they suffered in the plantations is rekindled. It leads up to many futile attempts at escape which are often brutally crushed. But then freedom is always an inevitable end to so many struggles. But even then they still had to struggle to survive in a strange land that was already theirs.
Oprah Winfrey, who donated more than 1million dollars to make the center a reality told The Early Morning Show co-anchor Harry Smith: ‘What happened in African-American history is really of value, significance and power.What is so profound about the Underground Railroad is that it could not have happened without the different people involved.” She went on wondering what kind of person she could have been like if she had been born in 1855. “Would I have had the courage to say ‘enough’? Would I have had the courage to say,’I heard about a place north, I heard about the Ohio River’?Would I have had the courage to leave whatever was at the time painful though comfortable?”