This is a series on the history of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The American Israelite will run this column in weekly installments.
How well does our Jewish Community know the story of the Underground Railroad? And how well do we know the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center that now defines Cincinnati’s skyline as viewed from Kentucky? We know the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center and its mission of demonstrating how understanding the horrors of the Shoah and other crimes against Jews can be a catalyst for humanity education. Do we know that the Freedom Center demonstrates the parallel story of how crimes against Africans as they were involuntarily forced into slave ships and brought as chattel property to the New World can encourage visitors to help repair the world? As vilified minorities throughout our history, Jews and African-Americans share stories of emancipation from slavery to freedom. Jews have Passover, and African-Americans have Juneteenth —holidays celebrating our respective freedom stories. The African-American story is one that all Americans should know and celebrate if our nation is ever to overcome the legacy of slavery that permeates every nook and cranny of our society and culture. Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was rescued by Hebrew Union College and brought to Cincinnati from Europe before the Shoah, observed that “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Exercising that responsibility begins with knowledge of the evil for which we take responsibility to overcome. As a museum of conscience, the Freedom Center is a good place to start our education. There are implicit and even explicit connections to Jews throughout the museum, most immediately in the prominence of the Skirball Traveling Exhibit Gallery. This important part of the museum was endowed with a gift from the foundation established by Rabbi Jack Skirball, an alumnus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. That foundation believes that endowing this part of the Freedom Center was a mitzvah, a commandment, because the story retold by the Freedom Center is essentially the same story Jews retell at Passover and reference throughout the liturgical year. Thus, slavery, the Civil War, the post-war Constitutional Amendments, the Civil Rights Movement, and the still evolving efforts to overcome racism comprise the African-American parallel story to the Jewish story told in the Passover Haggadah. The Skirball Foundation’s mitzvah is a statement of solidarity, that one must feel the suffering of one’s fellow human beings and take responsibility for overcoming it.
The mission of the Freedom Center is evident in the placement, design, and architecture of the building that graces the central Cincinnati riverfront, right behind the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Its location alone is a testament to African-American persistence in seeking to cross the Ohio River from a slave to a free state. Henceforth, the building sits as the emblem of the Queen City in every picture postcard from the south of downtown Cincinnati. The Freedom Center is, as it should be, of special interest to Jews whose role in the long and often difficult American immigration experience occurred within a slave-holding country until the end of the Civil War, and continued throughout Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement (in which Jews played an outsized role), into the age of Black Lives Matter and the backlash against Critical Race Theory. As we revel in the bicentennial celebrations this past year of the Jewish community in Cincinnati, we ought to know something of African-American history in America and in Cincinnati especially.
Most of us know at least the outlines of the story of the Underground Railroad. Started by clandestine activity in the night in the late eighteenth century, the message of the Underground Railroad’s secret network grew along the northern banks of the Ohio River. Here escaping slaves first set foot on free-state soil, often with the help of courageous women and men, black and white, Jewish and gentile, who ran the Underground Railroad. This is a great interracial, civil, and human rights story. Moving under cover of darkness to avoid detection by slave catchers and bounty hunters, fleeing slaves often were assisted by abolitionist “conductors” and “stationmasters” who lighted candles in windows and church steeples as beacons of safe passage, to offer a secure night’s sleep in a hidden attic or barn. Across the Ohio River came the escaping slaves reaching for the help of those in a free state who might channel them toward freedom in Canada, even Mexico and the Caribbean. The context for the search for freedom included the most hated case in American legal history, the 1857 Dred Scot decision, in which Chief Justice Taney, for the court, ruled that an escaped slave in a free state remained the chattel property of his owner and must, upon capture, be returned to his owner and to the condition of slavery. The Civil War followed soon thereafter.
This column will be continued in weekly installments. Stay tuned next week for more on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.