CINCINNATI, June 17 (UPI) -- For thousands of slaves escaping bondage in the South the difficult road to freedom passed through a network of homes, churches, cellars and barns known as the Underground Railroad.
Ground was to be broken Monday night for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a 158,000-square-foot museum to remember the epic journeys.
"The heroic stories of the Underground Railroad are powerful reminders of the mission that all Americans share in promoting the values of freedom," First Lady Laura Bush said in prepared remarks for the groundbreaking, kicking off a $110 million fundraising campaign co-chaired by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, retiring Proctor & Gamble Chairman John Pepper and singer-actor Harry Belafonte.
"We're anticipating about 10,000 people at tonight's ceremony," said spokesman Steve DeVillez.
Freedom Center President Ed Riguad, who began working to get the center off the ground in 1994, said he learned about both the slaves and slaveholders in his lineage.
"What I didn't have before this was an appreciation of history and how it can be motivating to people once they are captivated by the stories," Rigaud told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "This is American history. It is not African-American history or black history. It is American history and it's at the core of what makes our country great, the uniqueness of the United States to have people come together from all backgrounds and be one."
He said it was appropriate for the Queen City, which as been boycotted by black activists since the race riots in April 2001, to be the site of a museum dedicated to freedom.
Nearly $77 million has been raised from government, foundations, major corporations and individuals for the center scheduled to open on a downtown site along the Ohio River in mid-2004.
A program called "Freedom's Trees" hopes to sell four million trees to honor the African-Americans who were legally enslaved on the eve of the Civil War.
Bush, a former Texas schoolteacher and librarian, said the center would become a "national treasure" for generations of American schoolchildren as they learn the history of their homeland inside and outside the classroom.
She was to be joined by a host of dignitaries at the groundbreaking including Muhammad Ali; Ohio Gov. Bob Taft; Jack Kemp, the former New York congressman and housing secretary; former Miss America Heather French Henry, the wife of Lt. Gov. Steve Henry; Wally "Famous" Amos and basketball legend Oscar "Big O" Robertson.