In Pursuit of Freedom on the Banks of the Ohio



Left to Right: Dr. Clarence G. Newsome, president; Susan Redman-Rengstorg, vice president of institutional advancement; Michael Anthony Battle, executive vice president and provost

Photography by Daniel Smyth

 

“We are looking at the meaning of freedom afresh,” says Dr. Clarence G. Newsome, president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “We are doing extensive research on the subject and developing expertise on it. Our research takes us back to the origin of the concept 5,000 years ago.”

This fresh look will aid Susan Redman-Rengstorf, vice president of institutional advancement at the Freedom Center, as she leads it in furthering the cause of freedom worldwide. To do so, after all, she and center must seek to define the concept of freedom itself, to animate it and give it relevance.

“The purpose of the center has always been to bring history to life, to make it meaningful to contemporary society by telling the story of the Underground Railroad,” says Redman-Rengstorf. “I look at it as a convener.”

The center sits impassively on the banks of the Ohio River. Completed in 2004, it features bowed stone walls that capture the inherent tension between stasis and change, like a wave that is at once undulating and motionless.

A century-and-a-half ago, the land on which the center rests meant salvation for fugitive slaves using the Underground Railroad to escape the horrors of their southern captivity. The Ohio River marked a delineation between slavery and freedom, between where the country had come and where it was going. The center’s location is thus a conscious acknowledgment of Cincinnati’s pivotal role in moving the nation forward. And yet the center’s main entrance faces south, back against the current and into the vast, glaring monstrosity of human bondage.

The center is awash in such symbolism, perhaps because the story of slavery is too ineffably gruesome to recount in words alone. It requires something more, which is why the Freedom Center is just that – a center. Yes, the center houses a museum with superb exhibits that must be experienced first hand. But just as the center is a place of commemoration, it is also an agent of transformation.

“The center not only perpetuates the memories of those involved in the Underground Railroad, but also draws upon their life stories to encourage people to advance freedom in our own day,” says Dr. Newsome.

Michael Anthony Battle concurs. A former United States ambassador to the African Union, he agreed to become executive vice president and provost at the Freedom Center in January. “This is the only place where the mission intentionally focuses on the crisis of American slavery and at the same time deals with the reality of international slavery and human trafficking and seeks to end them. No other place in the country is obligated to telling both stories. ”

The Freedom Center’s dual role reflects that commemorating a past of such unfathomable horror compels a moral reaction, which transforms passive percipients to active participants. But this likewise compels the question of what freedom actually is. 

Dr. Newsome has developed five principles that characterize the attributes of freedom: self-determination, financial self-sufficiency, responsible exercise of human rights, active engagement in building inclusive democratic societies and active participation in building inclusive free-market economies. This involves the center in a plethora of social issues: poverty, homelessness, joblessness, abuse and hunger. Moreover, Dr. Newsome is not content to let freedom subsist of itself:

“I apply to the word an adjective so that it becomes ‘inclusive freedom,’ which means all people enjoying the rights and privileges of equal number, equal kind and equal quality.”

Ambassador Battle, meanwhile, is internationalizing the concept. “Clearly there are definitions of freedom in the world that differ from our classical definitions. We are discovering how to emerge with a sense of freedom that has different definitions but a common core, and (Dr. Newsome’s) five principles of freedom are inherent to those definitions.”

The efforts are both excellent and problematic. If freedom is a cultural artifact unique to every society, how is it possible to generalize the concept? More, if freedom is the state of being unhindered, doesn’t defining its essence and attributes only serve to entrench a present and contingent definition to the detriment of future iterations? Finally if freedom is, as Ambassador Battle notes, an “innate desire of life itself,” wouldn’t such a definition, if accurate, prove redundant?

These questions are likely irresolvable. And that’s the point. More important than proposing final answers to questions like these is making sure we’re asking them. The same is true with the question of what defines freedom: the answer might be infinitely variable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consciously seek it out.

“We talk about this place as being a place of consciousness,” says Ambassador Battle. “People are encouraged to think intentionally and intensely and then go from here challenged to engage others. I don’t think you can tell the story of slavery without trying to set people free, because if you do that then you are locked in a historical vacuum.” “When you educate your population, you get critical thinking and questioning of authority,” explains Redman-Rengstorf. “As a community, we can never be complacent about continuing to educate ourselves.” 

 

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.333.7739 or visit their website at www.freedomcenter.org