The Freedom Center is a museum on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati. We are located there, on the border between slave and free states, because close to 60% of all the courageous slaves who fled north on the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the Civil War did so by crossing the Ohio within 30 miles of our location.
Our mission is to tell the stories of freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad, through to contemporary times, inspiring and challenging people to take courageous steps for freedom today.
In other words, we stand firmly rooted in an era that revealed the best of courage, cooperation, and perseverance…and demand that people do better today.
We do this through our exhibits, through programming we host in our building, and – increasingly – through digital content and media.
So what is it that we say people should learn from this history, as it relates to the challenges we face today?
First: Slavery is not a historical concept. The form of legal, chattel slavery that dominated our nation’s politics for much of our first 100 years is, Thank God, a piece of history. But the exploitation and control of one human by another, for the purposes of one profiting from the other’s labor, continues. It continued in this country after the Civil War, as it did around the world. And it continues everywhere today, including here in our State.
Importantly, though - and this is the main point I want to make today to this audience – abolition is not a historic concept either. In our schools and in our culture, we celebrate the conductors on the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionists who fought for decades to end legalized American slavery, as unvarnished and uncontroversial heroes.
You may recall from your history books, however, that the idea slavery could be outlawed was, for many, many years, a ridiculous proposition. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an economic and cultural force more potent than “the slave power” of the first half of the 19th century. Yet these abolitionists fought day by day; they built a movement, brick by brick. And eventually, they won.
Today we face a different battle. Instead of a concentrated political and economic elite, we face the forces of ignorance and indifference, and of shadowy but highly organized criminal networks who feed on both.
But while the game may have changed, the way to win has not - the simple truth remains that a collection of committed individuals, united around the basic cause of human freedom, can stamp out slavery.
Indeed, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, it is the only thing that ever has.
This is the story we tell at the Freedom Center, so that the people we touch will recognize slavery is still a problem they must confront, and believe they have the power to do something about it.
YOU are our evidence. The people in this room, and the people all across the world who continue the work of the great 19th Century Abolitionists. YOU demonstrate that abolition is not merely a historic concept.
Think about it this way:
At the Freedom Center, we celebrate how John Parker, himself a former slave, traveled into Kentucky from Ripley, Ohio to ferry escaping slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. TODAY, people like the Salvation Army and International Justice Mission and so many others similarly extend their hand to help people escape their traffickers. But we can do more.
Back then in Ripley, the Rev. John Rankin opened his home to keep runaway slaves safe as they continued their journey to freedom. TODAY, safe houses do this same work here, at places like the Oasis House, and around the world. Although we need much more.
In 19th century Cincinnati, Katie Coffin opened her home as a transitional place, for escaping slaves to reclaim their mental, physical and spiritual health. TODAY, many different transitional homes staffed with dedicated caregivers provide a sanctuary for survivors to move from slavery to a true and empowered freedom. Although, again, we need more.
A Governor who sat in this very building, Salmon Chase, was first a lawyer in Cincinnati who regularly challenged the system of legal slavery and advocated on behalf of escaping slaves in court. TODAY, lawmakers like Theresa Fedor are making policy that allows lawyers and investigators to bring traffickers to justice for the first time, and to change the cost-benefit analysis of choosing a life of criminal trafficking. But we need more.
Most importantly, back then people like Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and Harriett Jacobs - men and women of almost unfathomable courage - had the will, the temerity, to escape from slavery and then to spend their lives telling their story and forcing our country to face the ugly truth of chattel slavery. TODAY, we have heroes like Theresa Flores, Rachel Lloyd and my new friend Katalea from Wright State who do the same. Their impact, and their courage, can’t possibly be overstated. As Rep Flores and I were discussing last night, we need to give them an even greater voice.
These are the stories that we tell. We tell them in our exhibits, like the world’s first museum quality exhibit Invisible: Slavery Today; in our programming, like the annual reception with the State Department Trafficking in Person Report Heroes and the unique academics-to-activism Historians against Slavery Conference;
and in media like our original documentary Journey to Freedom. This film, which is available on youtube and dvd, tells the parallel stories of Solomon Northup in 1840 and Cambodian Prum Vannak. You may have heard of Solomon’s story from the new film 12 Years a Slave. Vannak’s story is eerily similar, but it took place in Southeast Asia less than ten years ago. The film also tells the parallel stories of abolitionists in each era, and concludes by asking viewers to join the network of these abolitionists which spans hundreds of years and every continent. It has been screened at over 50 US embassies around as an integral part of the U.S. State Department’s public programming, and is available for use by anyone who wants to introduce this topic to broad audiences.
This has been our part of this movement, but WE need to do more. More to tell your stories, so that others join this movement.
That’s why n the coming months, we will be re-launching a website and anti-trafficking resource called EndSlaveryNow. This will be a place anyone can go, to easily, but comprehensively, get an introduction to what modern slavery is, where it is happening around the world, and who is doing what to respond to it.
We will also present the full spectrum of the response to trafficking - from awareness, rescue, and prosecution, to aftercare, transition, and empowerment – as well as a way to connect to the organizations focused on each of these elements.
And finally, we’ll provide a FULL picture of the many ways a committed individual can act – today – to attack human trafficking and modern slavery around the world and in their communities.
In this way, we hope End Slavery Now will act as a funnel: attracting people (through the magic of Search Engine Optimization) who may just be learning about modern slavery and human trafficking, educating them as to the true scope and scale of the challenge, and then funneling them to the organizations and issues that most align with their hearts and their passion.
We believe there will be two keys to the success of this effort. First, it must be comprehensive. We are fortunate that the original creators of this resource had close relationships with many of the leading national and global NGOs. To this base, we’re adding a state-by-state directory of anti-trafficking organizations. In Ohio, we will of course be relying on the incredible work already undertaken by Liz Rainade-Janis and the Deparment of Public Safety in this area. We will welcome your comments and suggestions at all times as to what we may be missing, though.
Just as important as this depth, though, will be the way the information presented. This, like everything we do at the Freedom Center, will be done through stories. We will explain the many forms and locations of modern slavery through the stories of the individuals affected by it; we will present the spectrum of modern abolition by highlighting the people and organizations that are leading this charge. I’ve already spoken to some of you here about how we might feature your organizations – and your stories – as a way to reach more people with your message, and ultimately to inspire action. I hope to talk to many more of you about this in the coming months.
This project, As we have begun to say, has a very simple purpose: We all have a role in ending slavery in our communities and around the world. At End Slavery Now, we help you find yours
Let me close by saying this:
The Freedom Center and other museums of conscience and educational institutions exist to tell the stories of heroic people. We exist because people throughout time have chosen to stand up against injustice, and demand change. We exist because of people like you.
And for that I simply want to say thank you, and don’t stop.