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Slave Jail Exhibit at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Cincinnati Freedom Center Features Stirring Exhibits
by Robb Hoff
I can remember the profound sense of eery solemnity that coursed through me the first time I entered the "Slave Jail" that is now the centerpiece exhibit of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. It was the same kind of visceral experience as entering the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The evil that humans can wreak on this world was palpable in both structures to the extent that these places were like portals opening up the mind to another dimension where the full depth of sorrow and inhumanity becomes unforgettably intertwined.
My encounter with the Slave Jail at the Freedom Center is different from most who experience it in its reconstructed museum state. I was among a small group who were actively involved at the original site of the structure before it was plucked from the Mason County section of Germantown and reassembled at its riverfront Cincinnati home between Great American Ballpark where the Cincinnati Reds play and Paul Brown Stadium that is home of the Cincinnati Bengals.
For a time back in early 2000, it looked like there might be enough opposition to moving the Slave Jail from the site -- where it was enclosed within a barn structure in the middle of a clover field -- to keep the structure in situ. i even had called then publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer Harry Whipple during that time to inform him that I had recorded the farm owner of the property stating that he was paid $250,000 for the structure at a time when the public claim was that the it was an in-kind donation.
But after the Kentucky Attorney General's Office decided not to block the structure's relocation on the basis of federal antiquities preservation laws, the inevitable followed and the slave jail was moved to become a key component of the Freedom Center.
In retrospect, it was a good thing for the structure to be removed and relocated where it would actually be experienced by millions of visitors. Had it remained in the tobacco barn that it enclosed it, the remnants of the structure would have undoubtedly been lost forever at some point.
I never thought that the reconstruction of the Slave Jail could approximate what the original site experience had to offer and it quite frankly did not, any more than if the Freedom Center had been able to relocate the Rankin House and the John P. Parker House in Ripley, Ohio or the Colonel Charles Young Birthplace cabin in Mason County, Kentucky at Mayslick.
But to the credit of the Freedom Center and the vision behind its purpose in such a prominent place on the Cincinnati riverfront, I have to say that the museum has ensured the survival of the Slave Jail and its emblematic significance in the story of the Underground Railroad and ultimately African-American History.