Underground Railroad Freedom Center Battling Tough Times

National Underground Freedom Center

It opened to great fanfare and promise in 2004. Now, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, whose exhibits focus on the story of the struggle for freedom, especially that of African Americans, is in deep financial trouble that could force it to shut down.

Located where African Americans crossed the Ohio River into freedom, the center has cut expenses severely but faces a $1.5 million shortfall in its 2012 budget, said Freedom Center board Co-chairman John Pepper and other center leaders.

Pepper, chairman of the board of Walt Disney; the Rev. Damon Lynch, Pepper’s Freedom Center co-chairman; and Kim Robinson, the center’s president and chief executive, discussed the threat of the center closing by the end of 2012.

“We were not crying wolf,” Pepper said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

The Freedom Center’s budget has been cut from $12.5 million in 2004 to $4.6 million in 2011, and its workforce from 120 to 34 full-time employees, Robinson said. “We are scratching and clawing,” he said.

By its nature as an institution that examines the enslavement of Africans in North America, the Freedom Center has struggled to fight the label that it’s a black-only museum, Lynch said.

The Freedom Center, by its leadership’s admission, failed to market its mission clearly enough and appeal to all audiences. “We need to become more engaging to bring families and young people through our door,” Pepper said.

Pepper is the Freedom Center’s primary fundraiser and benefactor. He and his wife, Francie, have contributed more than $15 million since 1999, he said.

In 2010, the center expanded its original mission of telling the stories of abolitionists from the Underground Railroad— a network of secret routes used by enslaved African-Americans to escape to free states and Canada — by adding a permanent exhibit, Invisible: Slavery Today, that examines contemporary slavery, human trafficking and its abolitionists.

The exhibit, which looks at practices that ensnare up to 17 million people globally, has won the center new supporters, among them scholar James Stewart of Macalester College in St. Paul.

“These exhibits are precious materials,” said Stewart, the founder of Historians against Slavery, a group dedicated to resurrecting the abolitionist spirit on college campuses and promoting discussion of social-justice issues.

The recession and deep cuts in government funding for museums nationally have made fundraising both essential and difficult. The center received almost $20 million in public money from the city of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, the state of Ohio and the federal government from 2004 through 2011. That number is likely to level off at about $250,000 in federal money this year, with no city, county or state funds expected in the immediate future, Pepper said.

Public funding for U.S. museums dropped to an average of 17% of total museum revenue in 2010, down from 24% in 2008, according to a survey released in December by the American Association of Museums.

“It’s very common,” Dewey Blanton, director of strategic communication for the association. “Public donations are down, too, in this economy.”

Heavy investment of government money has made the Freedom Center a popular target of local anti-tax groups, primarily the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), led by Cincinnati attorney Christopher Finney.

“My position and COAST’s position is we want (the Freedom Center) to survive and thrive and be a nice addition to the city — without tax dollars,” he said.

Paid attendance has leveled off to about 113,000 in each of the past three years, according to Freedom Center records. Though the center has had no problem attracting big-name visitors — its list of International Freedom Conductor Award winners includes Rosa Parks, former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush and Desmond Tutu— it has had trouble gaining support in its hometown. A third of the center’s 1.135 million visitors in its first seven years came from metropolitan Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, Freedom Center records show.

The center has begun to answer complaints of being aloof by Cincinnati NAACP chapter President Christopher Smitherman and others by reaching out to the city’s black community and partnering with programs that assist children from low-income families and at-risk mothers.

The center “has to ride the edge of a razor,” said state Sen. Bill Seitz, a suburban Cincinnati Republican, who would like to see offerings expanded to include, for example, the struggle for freedom in World War II. “If it widens its appeal to draw a broader audience, then some African Americans aren’t happy. And it’s a victim in the larger white community, which can see it as a black museum and not go.”

Several revenue-generating options have been discussed, including tenants for the building, which the Underground Railroad Freedom Center owns outright, a potential naming-rights deal, opening a full-scale restaurant to utilize its liquor license and further investment in social programs.

To Lynch, a Cincinnati native and pastor for 41 years, of one of the city’s most influential black congregations, the Freedom Center’s survival is personal. “Not on my watch,” he said. “We will do whatever it takes now to be here 100 years from now.”