Photo by Crystal Scanlon
Like the abolitionists who pushed for the immediate emancipation of all slaves and the end of racial discrimination and segregation so many years ago, the 31 members of The Ambassadors – the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s support network – are committed to pressing on for freedom for today’s enslaved, here, across the country and around the world.
What does “modern-day” slavery look like? According to the Freedom Center’s website, there are an estimated 20.9 million people “currently trapped in some form of slavery, sometimes referred to as human trafficking, which The United Nations defines as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose, including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”
At the core of the Freedom Center are the stories of the Underground Railroad, displayed in inspiring permanent and special exhibits and other public programs designed to impel conversations and empower modern abolitionists with the necessary educational resources. The Ambassadors’ mission, says member Jim Brock, is to grow interest, loyalty, involvement and ongoing financial support for the Freedom Center, founded in 2004 in downtown Cincinnati.
“I am so much in love with what the Freedom Center is doing, its intent and the people it’s reaching,” says Brock, who also serves as one of the center’s docents. He loves leading guided tours, especially for youngsters. “When children come up to you and want to high five you and thank you because of what you’re doing for the center, you know you’re doing the best thing you can do for your community. There is so much history at the center that needs to be shared, and it should never be swept aside.”
One only needs to read the daily news to see that slavery is a relevant topic, and today’s struggles for freedom everywhere are very real, Brock adds. “That’s another reason our mission is so important, and why we try to educate people and improve relationships throughout the community.”
Preserving the Freedom Center’s rich legacy and building strong, beneficial ties between the center, its donors and the general community are also passions of Carol Rigaud, renowned Cincinnati philanthropist and inaugural Ambassador who currently serves as the volunteer organization’s president. Rigaud’s husband, Ed, was the Freedom Center’s first president and CEO, having helped found the center while on loan from his top executive duties at Procter & Gamble.
“We started with 16 women who got together and said, ‘Let’s see what we can do to really help the Freedom Center,” Rigaud recalls. “Our vision as Ambassadors is to see to it that we continually support the center’s primary themes – engagement, cooperation, visibility, volunteerism and excellence in outreach. A number of us are docents, so we try to have a presence at every event. We do a donor thank-a-thon twice a year and help with mailings. We just try to promote the Freedom Center in whatever way we can.”
The Ambassadors officially meet the third Monday of each month, September through June.
“We hope to promote goodwill in the community, and build a dynamic Ambassadors program,” she adds. “We’re always welcoming new members. The more the merrier! The only requirements are that each member commit to a membership in the Freedom Center, plus everyone is required to initially donate [a minimum] of $300, with half of it going to the center’s operation and half going
to the endowment.”
It All Began With A Road Trip
Ambassadors co-founders Helen O’Neal and Algernon Johnson were on a road trip with their husbands in 2008 when they read about the then 4-year-old Freedom Center and its financial challenges.
“We started talking about how there was a need for more community involvement and support, and we decided we knew quite a few of our friends who were involved on boards or had experience as community volunteers,” O’Neal recalls. “We thought that if we could get them all together, we’d have the skills needed to help bring awareness to the need for the support of the center.”
Although The Ambassadors’ charter members were all African American women, the organization, now doubled in size, has always been and continues to be open to people of all races, nationalities and faiths, O’Neal notes. She encourages more men to get involved.
According to O’Neal, a common misconception regarding the Freedom Center is that it focuses only on ancient history. The Ambassadors work tirelessly to educate the public otherwise.
“We try to let people know, not only is it a center rooted in stories about the Underground Railroad, it also offers permanent and special exhibits that promote dialogue on contemporary issues like implicit bias and human trafficking,” O’Neal explains.
“The Ambassadors has been a great group to work with,” O’Neal concludes. “We’re all very much committed to the Freedom Center, and we have also enjoyed seeing our group grow. We’re pleased that the center values our input.”
Ambassador Aurelia Candy Simmons, who served three terms as the group’s president and started the docent program, says cultivating relationships is integral to growing financial support for the Freedom Center. “We host salons where we invite friends and neighbors to come to the center for special tours with the president and CEO and at that time, hopefully, we make new friends.”
Like Jim Brock, one of the docents she recruited, O’Neal says she is in love with and totally committed to the Freedom Center’s mission.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love.”
Back row, left to right: Edward W. Lewis, Dr. Ralph P. Brown, P.J. Ratliff, Aurelia Candie Simmons, Sandra F. Wiggins, James A. Brock, Doris M. Stokes, Miriam E. West, Gwen Wilder and Edna Keown. Front row, left to right: Mildred Kennedy, Phyllis McCallum, Doris S. Jackson, Carole Rigaud, April Moore, Helen O’Neal, Merri Gaither Smith and Nedra Scott. Photo by Rebecca Hendrixson.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 E Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information about the center, The Ambassadors or other volunteer opportunities, visit www.freedomcenter.org.