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Center preserves sacrifices of Underground Railroad

CINCINNATI - The Ohio River will never look the same.

"Look out that window," a black woman in 19th-century clothing tells a group of children at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened last year on the riverfront in downtown Cincinnati. Local leaders spent 10 years raising $110 million and building the museum in the city, a focal point of the Underground Railroad.

The river's banks are now lined with modern landmarks, but the water dividing Ohio from Kentucky is deep and formidable, as it was two centuries ago.

"For a slave, that was the Jordan River, and the other side was the Promised Land."

The re-enactment by a woman calling herself Miss Sadie serves as a poignant introduction to a new museum that illuminates a fascinating chapter of American history.

Miss Sadie tells of her life in slavery, the incalculable toll on African-American families, and the courage to risk torture and death for a chance to be free.

We'll never know exact figures, but perhaps 100,000 slaves managed to escape the South in the decades before the Civil War. Many were aided by courageous blacks and whites who defied the law and risked their own lives to help runaway slaves reach safety in the northern states and Canada. Smaller numbers managed to flee southward to Mexico and the Caribbean.

The very loose, ever-changing network of smugglers, hiding places, safe houses and people aiding slaves who fled north became known as the Underground Railroad.

"Stations" on the railroad were scattered throughout the eastern United States. But some of the most important were concentrated along the Ohio River, which separated the slave state of Kentucky from the free states of Ohio and Indiana.

From the National Park Service to local volunteer societies around the country, researchers are documenting Underground Railroad stories and sites, publishing guides, putting up markers and conducting tours.

The Freedom Center, as the museum refers to itself, is a big step forward in that process, and an ideal place to begin rediscovering a remarkable story.