“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” Nope, not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This time it’s a frumpy white man, depicted by editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman in the July 22 Cincinnati Enquirer, facing Cincinnati’s new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with arms raised, unshackled from his ball and chain of “‘Racist City’ stigma.” As the cartoon suggests, Cincinnati–scene of urban unrest three years ago following the shooting death of a black teenager by police–still doesn’t get it.
The $110 million Freedom Center, billed as a “museum of conscience” and a “beacon of freedom for all people,” opened August 23 with ceremonies featuring a Who’s Who of celebrities, First Lady Laura Bush, national media play and a $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner with 1,500 paying guests. The ceremonies did not go by without comment, however. As guests dined on gold-rimmed china and linen from Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s canceled wedding, a few blocks away about 200 gathered on Fountain Square to view “The People’s Freedom Center: A Living Museum of the Missing Pages of History and Contemporary Struggle.” The photographs, paintings, posters and banners, which show how the fight for freedom among Cincinnati’s poor, blacks and other disenfranchised groups is a constant battle, rebuked the government/corporate orthodoxy that the Freedom Center signals all is well in Cincinnati.
In fact, Cincinnati remains the country’s eighth most segregated large city. Nine blocks from the Freedom Center lie communities of devastating poverty. Police brutality and racial profiling occur too frequently. Homeless men, women and children survive amid changing city policies that turn toward the punitive. In May 2003 the City Council passed its second law on panhandling, this time requiring panhandlers to register and carry a license. In November 2004 the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Cincinnati as the “third meanest city in the United States,” up from sixth last year. In the city’s Empowerment Zone, composed of nine neighborhoods primarily of color, the black infant mortality rate ranges from 24 to 30 per thousand births, compared with a rate of 10 per thousand for the rest of the county in which Cincinnati sits. Children’s Hospital, ranked eighth in the nation in pediatrics, lies in the center of the zone.
Because these conditions persist, a class-action racial profiling lawsuit was filed against the city in 2000; it resulted in the historic 2001 “Collaborative Agreement” among the Cincinnati Black United Front, the ACLU, the City of Cincinnati and the Fraternal Order of Police to improve police-community relations. A boycott of downtown travel and tourism, initiated in 2001 by a coalition of several groups, continues to this day. This past March the Center for Constitutional Rights called the boycott a “focal point of national attention in part because the fight against police brutality and misconduct, economic apartheid and political disenfranchisement in Cincinnati is one of the most important racial justice struggles in the country.”
To his credit, Spencer Crew, CEO and executive director of the Freedom Center, says he wants the center to address these issues. But when asked how this might be accomplished, he offers the Freedom Center as a space for reflection and dialogue. Given Cincinnati’s troubling racial climate, the answer appears evasive and more in line with the city-corporate stance of ignoring the boycott by waiting it out. City and corporate figures may say they are working to bring about change, but they have never sat down with boycotters to discuss their demands. That Cincinnati would build a Freedom Center now and then call for conversation strikes many as hypocritical.
In fact, corporations are throwing big money at the Freedom Center. Just as environmentally dangerous corporations underwrite Earth Day celebrations to greenwash their public image, so too are freedom-dubious corporations jumping to support the Freedom Center to improve their market share. Willing to spend millions to commemorate a struggle of the past, these forces show little interest in addressing the inequities of the present.
No one opposes a museum’s recounting the sordid history of slavery and the underground railroad resistance against it. But the Freedom Center glosses over serious mention of the events of April 2001 and the continuing aftermath. In the center’s designated “dialogue zone” visitors may “write” their thoughts and reflections, as long as they stay within the limits of the magnetic words provided by the center. Even more revealing is the Freedom Center’s recently named “100 Everyday Freedom Heroes,” a list that includes people one would expect, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela but that suffers from inexplicable absences, including Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Ella Baker and Malcolm X. Who makes the list? Cincinnati’s own corporate mogul Carl Lindner, CEO of the American Financial Group, chief owner of the Cincinnati Reds, former owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer and former CEO of Chiquita, which under his direction was the subject of investigations alleging bribery, tax evasion schemes and pesticide practices that harmed and sterilized banana workers.
The center’s architecture and approach to exhibits, while competently handled, seem to play it safe for a setting investigating slavery and the struggle against it. This is far from the gripping architecture of the Holocaust museum in Washington, which powerfully reinforces its subject. Everywhere one looks the materials, colors, details and displays are muted, antiseptic. Nothing challenges. Meanwhile, the docents explain proudly that the imported-marble facades will bleach white over time, a chemical process that serves as an ironic metaphor for Cincinnati’s identity and its new museum of conscience.