The grand opening celebration of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, on Monday, August 23 2004 significantly coinciding with the United Nations’ annual International Day of Commemoration for the Abolition of Slavery was itself a landmark event in the history of the struggles for freedom worldwide. The festivities to mark the occasion were most significant in not only recognizing the abolition of slavery in the past, but also for today’s struggle to free over 27 million people currently enslaved all around the world.
The national Underground Railroad Freedom Centre therefore in the grandeur of its opening was drawing attention to the odiousness of the act of trading in human beings and all the other accompanying inhumanities involved.Â It was as well an opportunity for us to rejoice in its abolition and immortalize the valiant men and women who stood up against it often selflessly in the past so that those of us in the present will emulate their acts of courage in defending humanity and human values wherever we see them been trampled upon.
The opening of the Freedom Centre which was the culmination of 10 years of planning and collaboration with Underground Railroad communities, universities, and cultural groups from across the United States included a “Grounds for Freedom” procession of freedom sites, an inter-ethnic Festival of Freedom, lighting the Flame of Freedom, exhibitions, amongst other activities.
Activities began with a live broadcast from the Freedom Center grounds by CBS Early Show. The NBA, ABC Good Morning America, MTV, Chat the Planet, C-Span as well as WCPO-9 live news and web cast were amongst other special broadcasts and taping that enlivened the occasion. A live satellite feed was broadcast to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Rochester, Connecticut, where a dedication party was being hosted. The History Channel added to the glory of the event when it broadcast a special documentary on the Underground Railroad.
The Freedom Center’s first work of scholarship, Passages to Freedom, a historic book published by the Smithsonian Press was launched. This videotaped program consisting of presentations by the scholars who guided the development of the Freedom Center history exhibits included Dr. James Horton of George Washington University and Dr. David Blight, of Yale University. Under the guidance of the leading historians, curators, artists and exhibit designers throughout the United States, five major inaugural exhibitions featured approximately 500 years of freedom stories-from 1500s to now.
At noon, Nick Lachey, of 98 Degrees and MTV’s hit television show Newlyweds, kick-off an all-day free festival featuring local entertainers and radio personalities, and national speakers and entertainers whilst Music Television’s (MTV) “Choose or Lose” taped activities for later broadcast.
Also at mid-day, the Freedom Center’s National Honorary Board held its Annual Meeting under the theme: The Struggle Continues-Introduction to the Institute for Contemporary Slavery & Freedom with its keynote speaker being Ambassador John Miller, Senior Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State; Director, Office to Monitoring and Combating the Trafficking in Persons.
An evening Festival of Freedom kicked off immediately following the Grounds for Freedom procession. The free festivalÂ paid tribute to some of the most beloved and prominent human rights performers, highlighting dance, music, storytelling and demonstrations from various ethnic communities from around the world. Readings and performances by Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass re-enactors as well as Daryl Harris and Children’s Theater; storytelling by Freedom Train; and demonstrations by Annie Ruth, Mad Cap Productions and others were all part of the attractions. Dozens of ethnically representative performers performed traditional and contemporary programs of blues, rock, gospel, jazz and other music in a festival that ran from noon to 8 p.m. in the lot south of the Freedom Center off Mehring Way.
Upon Nick Lachey’s return as Master of Ceremonies for the Dedication Concert he featured music by the Freedom Center’s 700-voice choir; the award-winning Blessed Union of Souls; and a special guest performance.
The staging area for the ceremonies for the Public Dedication was the Ohio River at the intersection of 2nd Street and Walnut Street with Jumbotrons located throughout the riverfront broadcasting the event.
The formal dedication at 8 p.m. chaired by Freedom Center board members took place on the Freedom Center’s two-acre Freedom Park facing the Ohio River started with a 1,500-person “Parade of Light” beginning at the site for the proposed Freedom Park in Covington, Kentucky, near the foot of the Roebling Bridge. The procession was met by Garth Fagan Dance, of Lion King fame, at the edge of the bridge and continuing through to the dedication platform. The Parade of Light closed with the Grounds for Freedom roll-call of participants including the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware (Del) and Friends of Oberlin Underground Railroad, as well as delegations from both Canada and Mexico. It concluded with the lighting of Freedom’s Flame on the second balcony of the Freedom Center followed by a fireworks display.
The speaking portion of the formal program, with Angela Bassett as emcee, included a dedication prayer, remarks by special guests Executive Director Dr. Spencer Crew, Sean P. Combs, Bono and other key officials and celebrity supporters followed by cultural presentations and slave crossing re-enactment.
All the guests were at the end invited to take an abbreviated tour of the Freedom Center, which remained open until 1 a.m.
Under a sweltering sun more than 1,500 guests from Cincinnati and around the nation, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey, actress Angela Bassett and actor husband Courtney Vance, attended a $ 1,000-a-plate gala, “Lighting Freedom’s Way,” celebrating the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s dedication.
Guests started arriving at 6 p.m. in everything from a Rolls Royce to a horse-drawn carriage, pulling up to the red carpet leading to the football-field sized tent near the banks of the Ohio River. Winfrey, who donated $ 1 million to the center and narrated its Brothers of the Borderland film, was fashionably late, with boyfriend Stedman Graham wearing a black Gianfranco Ferre floor-length dress with a plunging neckline. Among the earliest arrivals were Vance – dressed in a dark blue suit and bright, salmon-colored shirt confessing how much he was impressed with the building – and Bassett, who wore a purple silk pantsuit and short heels with a pink purse.
A wide variety of people in race, religion and age, mostly African-American or Caucasian, and not so much of Hispanics and Asians from all over the area turned up because they believed in the importance of sharing songs together.
The choir, also directed by Catherine Roma, performed 10 songs that night at the dedication concert including “Free at Last” and “The Ballad of the Underground Railroad.” The choir having worked hard on tone, pitch, diction and rhythm since May, starting with bi-weekly rehearsals which were later stepped up had well modulated renditions. All 700 people displayed mastery in coordinating their movements, swaying as one and moving their mouths precisely and collectively, their underlying goal being to get people to collect and take a look into each other’s culture Members of the choir are already used to bridging cultures through music. The Greater Cincinnati group, was singing as part of the Freedom Center Choir, a fusion of people from many different Indian backgrounds who sing together in Sanskrit. Some practically melted into each other as they sang on, “Sail on, freedom,” surging strongly across the water and into Covington.
“This is the beginning of change.”Â Indeed, for this cultural centre hasÂ remained open from then keeping up the exhibits and shows of different media: drama, film, talks, lectures, discussions, photographic shows, films all sustained by guided tours with accompanying commentaries on the entire concept and each of the exhibits, many of which previous articlesÂ have pinpointed.In addition a whole hostof outreach and educatiive and community activities make its mission alive for all who care about others and how we live to reflect, respond and then resolve to make a difference. Â Further Reading:
Born and schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Arthur Smith has been teaching English for over thirty years. He is now a Senior Lecturer of English at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing for the past nine years.