Local group to help welcome Freedom Center

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 23, 2004

A delegation from Ironton traveled to Cincinnati today to participate in the grand opening and dedication of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center there.

First Lady Laura Bush will speak at the dedication ceremony tonight.

The Ironton group, led by Joe Jenkins, director of the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library, and Patricia Arrington, president of the Lawrence County Historical Society, includes historian Luanne Blagg and several other local historians, historical society members and museum docents.

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At 8 p.m. tonight, they will walk in the Grounds for Freedom candlelight procession, a symbolic trip from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to the Ohio side and the site of the new $110 million Freedom Center on the waterfront, tucked between Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, and Great American Ballpark, where the Cincinnati Reds play.

The Ironton delegation will participate with organizations from around the world that are concerned with freedom and representatives of many of the cities and towns along the river that played a major role in the Underground Railroad.

Each of the participating groups has been asked to bring a small amount of "free soil" from their home communities or historic sites to be placed in a ceremonial urn. The Ironton group collected earth from the John Campbell House, the museum/John Rankin house, and the library. The soil will form the base for planting the Freedom Park, to be opened in 2007.

"There was so much Underground Railroad activity here in Lawrence County and all along the river, because Kentucky was a slave state and Ohio a free state, said Arrington, who will represent the group by placing Ironton's soil in the urn. "They had to get across the river, a symbol of freedom. Our participation in the dedication will educate people about Ironton and Lawrence County's role in the Underground Railroad and this journey will commemorate our valiant cooperative effort to free people from slavery and oppression."

Other special guests and celebrities expected to attend the procession and the dedication ceremony afterwards with the first lady include Gov. Bob Taft, Sen. Mike Dewine, Congressman Rob Portman, actors Angela Bassett and Bill Hemmer and Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. Sean "P.Diddy" Combs, Blessid Union of Souls and the Freedom Center Chorus will perform in a dedication concert before the procession across the bridge.

Oprah Winfrey, who was one of several individuals who donated $1 million to the Freedom Center, attended a gala at the site on Sunday evening. Winfrey narrates the film "Brothers of the Borderland," which is part of the Freedom Center's displays.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center honors the more than 100,000 runaway slaves who escaped to freedom through the supportive secret system of abolitionists, freed slaves, sympathizers and safe houses on many routes from the south to freedom in Canada. Several of the Underground Railroad escape routes ran through Lawrence County, home to many abolitionists, including Ironton founder John Campbell.

The center focuses on the Underground Railroad as part of a message that challenges visitors to look at and try to help the millions around the world today who are enslaved or otherwise oppressed.

Its founders intend for it to inspire personal action and provide a safe-house for dialog on issues of contemporary freedom.

Aug. 23 was selected as the dedication date and the start of a year-long opening celebration because that has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery.

Cincinnati is located at the center of the river's "freedom corridor," a 200-mile stretch of 19th century towns that played leading roles in the freedom stories of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

The Freedom Center is located in a unique architectural edifice of three pavilions, representing three themes in the center's mission - courage, cooperation and perseverance. It has eight interactive experiences and exhibits, two theatres, a hall for dialogue and an education and research center.

Connie Crowther, a native of Ironton and a journalism graduate of Ohio University, is a writer and public relations counselor in Coral Gables, Fla.