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Free at Last

A new museum celebrates the Underground Railroad, the secret network of people who bravely led slaves to liberty before the Civil War

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The phone rang one drizzly morning in Carl Westmoreland’s office overlooking the gray ribbon of the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati. It was February 1998. Westmoreland, a descendant of slaves, scholar of African-American history and former community organizer, had recently joined the staff of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Then still in the planning stages, the center, which opened this past August in Cincinnati, is the nation’s first institution dedicated to the clandestine pre-Civil War network that helped tens of thousands of fugitive slaves gain their freedom.

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The caller, who identified himself as Raymond Evers, claimed that a 19th-century “slave jail” was located on his property in northern Kentucky; he wanted someone to come out to look at it. As word of the center had gotten around, Westmoreland had begun to receive a lot of calls like this one, from individuals who said their house contained secret hiding places or who reported mysterious tunnels on their property. He had investigated many of these sites. Virtually none turned out to have any connection with the Underground Railroad.

“I’ll call you back tomorrow,” Westmoreland said.

The next day, his phone rang again. It was Evers. “So when are you coming out?” he asked. Westmoreland sighed. “I’m on my way,” he said.

An hour later, Westmoreland, a wiry man then in his early 60s, was slogging across a sodden alfalfa pasture in Mason County, Kentucky, eight miles south of the Ohio River, accompanied by Evers, 67, a retired businessman. The two made their way to a dilapidated tobacco barn at the top of a low hill.

“Where is it?” Westmoreland asked.

“Just open the door!” Evers replied.

In the darkened interior, Westmoreland made out a smaller structure built of rough-hewn logs and fitted with barred windows. Fastened to a joist inside the log hut were iron rings: fetters to which manacled slaves had once been chained. “I felt the way I did when I went to Auschwitz,” Westmoreland later recalled. “I felt the power of the place— it was dark, ominous. When I saw the rings, I thought, it’s like a slave-ship hold.”

At first, Westmoreland had difficulty tracking down the history of the structure, where tobacco, corn and farm machinery had been stored for decades. But eventually Westmoreland located a MasonCounty resident who had heard from his father, who had heard from his grandfather, what had gone on in the little enclosure. “They chained ’em up over there, and sold ’em off like cattle,” the MasonCounty man told Westmoreland.

At Westmoreland’s urging, the FreedomCenter accepted Evers’ offer to donate the 32- by 27-foot structure. It was dismantled and transported to Cincinnati; the total cost for archaeological excavation and preservation was $2 million. When the FreedomCenter opened its doors on August 23, the stark symbol of brutality was the first thing that visitors encountered in the lofty atrium facing the Ohio River. Says Westmoreland: “This institution represents the first time that there has been an honest effort to honor and preserve our collective memory, not in a basement or a slum somewhere, but at the front door of a major metropolitan community.”

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