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Will the Freedom Center Tell the Whole Truth?

By Doug Trapp · January 31st, 2002 · Burning Questions
These days, the Underground Railroad is widely considered a heroic effort to bring slaves to freedom. But it wasn't always a one-way trip, nor always supported by most Americans, according to sociologist Dr. James W. Loewen, who taught at the University of Vermont for 20 years and has written a number of history books.

Most people don't realize the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed whites to kidnap blacks, take them to a slave state and convert them into property, just like any other slave. At the time, blacks couldn't testify against whites.

"So the alleged slave was powerless," Loewen says.

This happened to thousands of free blacks, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, Loewen says.

While no one is lining up to commemorate those actions, lots of people and places now claim a link to the Underground Railroad because it sounds so good -- whether or not it's true.

"Every damn root cellar in Vermont has become a station in the Underground Railroad," Loewen says, adding that a relatively small number of people ran the network.

Loewen, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Harvard University, is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, which correct myths and errors in U.S. history textbooks and historical markers, respectively.

For Lies My Teacher Told Me, published in 1996, Loewen spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution fact-checking a dozen U.S.

history textbooks representing the range of what schools can buy. He found that most authors and publishers of textbooks tend to dumb down controversial issues instead of presenting a balanced discussion in order to make their books more presentable to textbook approval committees across the country.

"Therefore, they wrote the history ... of slavery so as not to offend either a white school board in South Carolina or a black school board in Washington, D.C.," Loewen says.

For example, most textbooks present a charitable portrait of President Woodrow Wilson because of his work creating The League of Nations, the precursor for the United Nations. But Wilson isn't noted for his openly racist policies, such as physically separating black and white federal employees.

More significantly, U.S. history textbooks didn't even acknowledge that slavery was wrong until after the Civil Rights movement, Loewen says.

"They are still of mixed mind about abolitionists," he says, presenting them as fanatics even though there's some tension between that view and the view that slavery was wrong.

Loewen's latest book, Lies Across America, gives the same examination to American historical markers and finds that many of them need corrections -- especially commemorations of the former mansions of slave owners.

"Almost all of them glorify the owners and in a sense glorify slavery," Loewen says. But he hasn't seen a marker for the reverse Underground Railroad.

So will the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, due to in mid-2004, present an unflinching, complete look at the truth, or will it stick to the glossy, happy, textbook version?

Ernest Britton, director of external affairs at the Freedom Center, says museum directors hope to finish the permanent exhibit details by the end of the year. But the team of professors and historians, led by Spencer Crew, former director of the Smithsonian Institution, have created a framework for the museum. Four galleries will cover slavery until 1865, 20th-century freedom movements, the underground railroad and an "encounter" gallery for African history prior to the slave trade.

There will also be a "concluding experience" with rotating exhibits and some sort of poll asking visitors how they'll respond to oppression in their communities, Britton says.

Freedom Center designers held three public meetings to gather input in November and December. Crew will visit every community council in Cincinnati this year to gather more ideas.

The reverse Underground Railroad isn't news to the center's directors; they were just talking about it the other day in the office, Britton says.

"We will definitely not ignore myth and lore," he says.

James Loewen is speaking at Xavier University's Kelley Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Admission is free.


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