Let Freedom Ring

updated 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Carl Westmoreland was researching the history of the Underground Railroad—the secret network that helped slaves make their way to freedom before and during the Civil War—when he got the call from Raymond Evers, who owns a farm near German-town, Ky. "He said, 'I think I've got something you can use,' " recalls Westmoreland, 67. "Frankly, I didn't believe he had what he thought he had."

But when he stepped into the large tobacco barn on Evers's 380-acre property, his doubts dissolved. Within the battered walls of the barn stood a two-story, rough-hewn log structure that had once been used as a holding pen for slaves in the 1830s. "I was overwhelmed," says Westmoreland, a historic preservationist and the great-grandson of an enslaved blacksmith. "It's a place that's ugly and dark. But you've got to look at the ugly side of the journey to see the glory of our emergence." Now the pen is the centerpiece of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which hosted a celebrity gala on Aug. 22 attended by Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassett, among others, followed the next day by a dedication featuring First Lady Laura Bush.

More high-tech learning center than museum, the $110 million facility—10 years in the making—tells the Underground Railroad's history through films, interactive exhibits and original artifacts, the most impressive of which is the pen, moved in its entirety to the museum site on the Ohio River's north bank, the shore of freedom for slaves crossing from Kentucky to Ohio. Built by slave trader Capt. John W. Anderson, the pen held men and women waiting to be sold, shackled in pairs to a central chain and confined to sitting or lying. Despite its emotional impact, the purpose of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center "is not to provide a sense of guilt," says executive director Spencer Crew, "but a sense of possibility."

That spirit resonated at the gala, where 1,500 guests ate swordfish and tenderloin under a candlelit tent. Noted Winfrey, who donated $1 million to the center: "The ancestors are rising up in celebration tonight."

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