Daniel happened upon the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center while researching Cincinnati based attractions. Housed in a modern building that follows the curves of Ohio River currents as it overlooks the Ohio River, it serves both as a memorial to those who suffered under the heavy burden of American slavery and a reminder that slavery still exists and that it's up to us to do something about it.
Rather than focusing on artifacts, the freedom center is about stories. It features the narratives of hundreds of people who fought for freedom. It emphasizes that working together for a common cause is more important than classifications, backgrounds, and social boundaries. It also features a couple excellent short films that help us understand just how risky it was to help slaves escape.
I think a lot of us are under the impression that we would be right there with the abolitionists, risking our lives to help people we don't even know simply because we know it's right. But I think if we take a really hard look at ourselves, a lot of us would realize that we might not be willing to die for someone who has no direct impact on our lives. The men and women of the Underground Railroad, slave and free, were incredibly courageous, more courageous than most of us have ever had to be.
But the story doesn't end there. The Freedom Center partnered with International Justice Mission to tells the stories of present day slaves. They broke down global slavery into several categories, from sex slavery to child labor to forced factory labor. The exhibit was dark and jarring, with stories scrawled on dirty fabric scraps and mattresses. There was an ever-present creaking noise as a globe suspended from the ceiling slowly made its way around its axis over and over again. By the third display, I started to cry. I composed myself in the dark and moved forward.
The exhibit emphasized that, while anyone can be forced into slavery, the industry feeds on the desperate - on those with few resources and few options. And it happens everywhere, from Spain to Malaysia, from Peru to Texas and Florida in the United States. It happens right under our noses. It happens in industries we support with our consumer dollars. It's also quick to point out, however, that slavery and low wages are not the same. While wage slavery does exist, there are thousands of people who have absolutely no choice but to do the work they were stolen away to do or suffer the consequences. Young women are sold by their parents and fiances into prostitution. Children are sold to work in mines. Immigrants desperate for jobs to help feed their families are forced to work in tomato fields and sweatshops.
The reality is grim, but we do have the power to help free people from slavery. We may not be called to risk our lives as fieldworkers (but maybe some of you are), but we can contribute financially to organizations like International Justice Mission and to companies that adopt fair trade principles and work to ensure that their materials are sourced ethically. The museum devoted a whole room to resources and organizations that work to end the global slave trade and additional resources are offered periodically online.
The Freedom Center is concerned that it may not be able to secure long term funding. But it's a gem in a museum culture that often favors artifacts over narratives. We need stories more than we need porcelain fragments on display. If you get the chance, I encourage you to take a trip to Cincinnati and visit the Freedom Center.