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From slave pen to family history center

Church donates resources, expertise to help African-Americans discover roots

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Along with the slave pen and other displays that recount the plight of the African- American slave, one of the highlights of the recently opened National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, is a family history center sponsored by the Church.

The $110 million Freedom Center is not so much a museum to slavery as it is "a safe house for dialogue and a beacon of freedom for all people," said Ed Rigaud, president of the Freedom Center who was given a two-year leave of absence as vice president of Proctor and Gamble to develop the museum. Mr. Rigaud's leave of absence eventually stretched into six years.

In the mid-1800s, Cincinnati was something of an informal hub in the network of free men and abolitionists who helped thousands of slave runaways cross the Ohio River and aided them in their travels to Canada to secure their freedom.

It became known as the Underground Railroad, though it was a human train that had nothing to do with rails. Because of its location across the Ohio River from slaveholder Kentucky, the state of Ohio evolved into a well-beaten path on the Underground Railroad.

The museum is situated on a picturesque spot on the riverfront where slaves could have once crossed. Now 10 years after the concept for a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was proposed, doors opened Aug. 23 to the nation's largest museum dedicated to telling and preserving the history of this clandestine network.

The Church's contribution to the project came about when Paul Beck, then president of the Cincinnati Ohio Stake, learned of the project and suggested a family history center be included in the museum. The Church donated four computers, a high-speed printer and a state-of-the-art microfiche reader. Copies of the Freeman Bank records were also made available.

It is now known as the FamilySearch Center of the John Parker Library.

Museum directors were excited about the Church's willingness to participate and readily accepted the assistance, said Darold Olson, director of Church Public Affairs in Cincinnati. The various groups of African-Americans in Cincinnati met the plan for the FamilySearch Center with ovations, he said.

News of the FamilySearch exhibit drew front-page coverage on two consecutive days in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Brother Olson said, the first he's seen in 36 years in Cincinnati. Early comments from the guest register state: "Fantastic resource and service. I'll return again." "Great place to do research." "Wonderful! I could spend the entire afternoon here. Thank you!"

"We take the FamilySearch Center very seriously," said Naomi Nelson, director of education at the Freedom Center. The Freedom Center plans to stimulate public participation by offering courses in family history research.

"I think there are more people involved in genealogy than we are aware," she said.

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