African American Museum

African American Museum

Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, is the location of one of the newest African American museums and one of the most awe inspiring. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a grand tribute to the people manning and escaping via the Underground Railroad during the horrific slavery era of United States history.

Ten years of planning and fund raising were required to build this 158,000 square foot African American museum that opened to the public on August 3, 2004. Architects from Indianapolis, Indiana, and Portland, Oregon, designed this amazing $110 million structure that features three separate pavilions, each celebrating courage, cooperation, and perseverance, all traits without which the Underground Railroad escape to freedom would never have happened.

Such dignitaries as Oprah Winfrey and Muhammad Ali attended the museum’s groundbreaking ceremony in the summer of 2002

The building’s east and west exteriors are made of rough travertine stone and the north and south facades are made from copper panels. The late Walter Blackburn, one of the African American museum’s primary architects, describes these materials as illustrations of the fields and rivers the escaping slaves had to cross in their life-or-death quest for freedom.

A slave pen on the second floor of the museum is the facility’s principal artifact. The 21-by-30 foot slave “jail” was moved from Kentucky to dominate the freedom center’s second floor atrium area. The structure was originally used as a holding cell for slaves awaiting shipment to markets in Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

The slave pen housed male slaves on the second floor where their shackle rings have been preserved. Female slaves occupied the first floor, where a fireplace was used for cooking. Some slaves spent only a few days in this pen while others waited months.

Carl B. Westmoreland is the African American museum’s curator and senior advisor. He describes the slave pen as hallowed ground. “When people stand inside, they speak in whispers. It is a sacred place.”

The museum also features presentations celebrating the concept of freedom; the story of the Underground Railroad; and the history of slavery, its abolition, and the men and women who helped achieve that abolition.

The FamilySearch Center at the museum offers visitors a place to explore their own family’s roots.