Volume 15 Number 1
Cincinnati's Past Informs Its Future
01 February 2002

The scenes, televised globally, were ugly—rioting, looting, young African American men hauled to jail.

That was Cincinnati, Ohio, last April after a policeman shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old African American youth he said he thought was reaching for a gun.

It was a scene not unlike those in Cincinnati and other cities in the 1960s’ battle for civil rights for all Americans. That struggle brought a host of new federal, state and local laws. Gains came across the spectrum of interracial relationships—in jobs, education, housing, voting and elective office-holding. Doors long closed swung open. Nevertheless, the struggle is far from won. Racism remains unconquered, if more subtle, in today’s America.

Situated on the Ohio River as a gateway between the South and North, Cincinnati could yet become a beacon for improved race relations. The spark promises to be the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is set to open on the city’s historic riverfront in 2004.

The Freedom Center will capitalize on Cincinnati’s past as a pivotal point on the 19th century ‘Underground Railroad’, as the system of secretly shuttling slaves away from the plantations of the South was known. It will utilize the latest multimedia technology to trace the history of the Underground Railroad and strive to cultivate a new sense of the precious gift of liberty and how to expand and protect it. It will also have links with the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

‘We are using history to connect to modern-day issues,’ says Ernest Britton, the Center’s director of external affairs. ‘The Center will be highly interactive and invite the participation of visitors in dialogue to connect with lessons of the past—the interracial cooperation, perseverance and desire for freedom [which marked the Underground Railroad].’

A glimmer of what we may expect was evident in the interactive exhibit, ‘Civil unrest in Cincinnati: voices of the community’, at the Cincinnati Museum Center last summer and fall. The Museum’s Vice-President, John Fleming, was formerly chief operating officer and director of the Freedom Center project.

‘Civil unrest in Cincinnati’ was conceived both to educate Cincinnatians of all races on the past and to point them toward a brighter, more cooperative future. The aim was not finger-pointing but helping to define and reduce the causes of violence. One feature addressed ‘Ways to fight hate’. Another was a ‘graffiti wall’ on which visitors, including children, could answer the question, ‘What can you do to ensure a fair society?’

‘The exhibit was up three months,’ Fleming told me. ‘We wanted to give everyone a voice and promote understanding so [all] could understand those with differing views.’ One novelty was a ‘whispering tunnel’ through which visitors could walk and hear recorded voices typifying remarks of African Americans and whites about each other.

The exhibit’s advisory board was widely inclusive. Fleming said it comprised, among others, ‘people from public housing, from Over-the-Rhine (the heavily African American neighbourhood that was once the enclave of German settlers) and from the police department’. Thus board members from differing backgrounds learned to work together on a project that won wide acclaim.

More than ten thousand people visited the exhibit. Eighty-five per cent of the 400 who responded to an opinion survey reacted favourably. ‘Seventy-five per cent said they thought it contributed positively to race relations,’ says Fleming.

Britton and Fleming are African Americans, but whites are also involved in both centres. For example, the three co-chairmen of the Freedom Center’s fund-raising drive are former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, entertainer Harry Belafonte—both African American—and John Pepper, Chairman of Procter & Gamble, who is white.

Meanwhile, interracial dialogues are underway aimed at replacing Cincinnati’s riot-torn image. The road ahead may not be easy, but giant steps have been taken. They may point the way up for many other cities too.

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the ‘Cincinnati Enquirer’. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.
Bob Webb

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