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Remembering Cincinnati’s Essential Role in the Underground Railroad

Located just across the Ohio River from the former slave-holding state of Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio, once beckoned freedom seekers with the promise of a new life.

An eternal flame shines brightly at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati. Like a beacon of hope, the flame overlooks the Ohio River, once known to enslaved people as the River Jordan because it separated a life of slavery in Kentucky from one of freedom in Ohio. Crossing the Ohio River to Cincinnati was their gateway to a new life.   

Opened in 2004, the Freedom Center uses multimedia experiences, permanent and changing exhibits, and public programs to educate people about the history of the Underground Railroad in the US and about the ongoing struggle to eradicate slavery and human trafficking.

The Freedom Center’s largest exhibit is a slave pen, built in the early 1800s, in which  a slave trader confined men, women and children before selling them. The log building was transported to the museum from a farm in Mason, Kentucky, just 60 miles from Cincinnati. Visitors to the Freedom Center will be chilled by the sight of iron rings used to chain the enslaved in the pen. A nearby listing of some of the people imprisoned in the pen in 1834 — including Simon, Bob, Matilda, and Malinda and child —gives names to the human suffering that once took place in the shack. 

“The slave pen is our most important artifact,” says senior historian Carl Westmoreland, “because it represents something the country has to come to terms with.”  Elsewhere in the museum, the From Slavery to Freedom gallery examines three centuries of slavery in the Americas, while the exhibition ESCAPE! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad uses stories, role-playing and hands-on activities to illustrate the strength, courage and cooperative actions of those who resisted slavery, particularly in the mid-1800s.

The Freedom Center is not focused solely on the past. The Open Our Mind learning lab is designed to help visitors understand and recognize bias and other forms of discrimination. Two other exhibitions educate visitors about the reality that slavery still exists in multiple forms in today’s world.

Museum attractions and in-person programs are supplemented by free online resources, including virtual exhibits (including one about the slave pen), videos of previously held programs, and learning materials for children and adults. Explore the plethora of offerings at