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5 Minutes with Dr. Clarence G. Newsome

Dr. Clarence G. Newsome

Photo by Aaron M. Conway

The Underground Railroad, a diverse network of individuals that helped enslaved people reach freedom, is more than something that existed long ago. Dr. Clarence G. Newsome, president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, speaks eloquently about how its story is still crucially relevant, both in the U.S. and worldwide. In addition to its fascinating exhibits, the Freedom Center is reaching out to a new generation, notably through the website endslaverynow.org, which offers practical ways that visitors can help liberate the 20.9 million global victims of modern-day slavery. Newsome, a past president of Shaw University, speaks worldwide on the topic of freedom.  

SKY: What is the mission of the Freedom Center?

NEWSOME: Our mission is to champion freedom and, in particular, to champion inclusive freedom—that all people everywhere shall and will live free. Our mission is inspired by the story of the Underground Railroad, and it’s inspired by what we learn from our research and what we teach and share with others. It is our way to inspire all people to take a courageous step for freedom by helping to free all people throughout our nation and throughout our world.

Why Cincinnati?

Cincinnati became “Grand Central Station” for many men and women escaping from slave states, whether they came directly out of Kentucky or from states deeper in the South . . . finding people who would help them make their way farther north.

Why is the history of the Underground Railroad so little known in the U.S.?

It has a lot to do with the way our nation as a whole has willingly or unwillingly become caught up with a kind of historical amnesia. Many of our schools simply don’t focus on the subject anywhere near as much as they should. The Underground Railroad story is all about the quest and passion for freedom. It’s about the lengths to which people went to make freedom a reality for all people—the courage of the people who escaped from slavery and the courage of the people who helped.

Could Harriet Tubman’s image on $20 bills boost public interest in the Underground Railroad?

It’s a wonderful, magnificent opportunity. It gives us the opportunity to answer the question a lot of people have already begun to ask: Who is Harriet Tubman? Thousands, maybe even millions of people in this country don’t know the role this woman played in helping to make the Underground Railroad a success, freeing so many people and putting her own life in danger.

What are some of the key points you make in your speaking engagements?

Freedom is one of the most innovative concepts in the history of humankind. And it is a concept that is still evolving in terms of its meaning and application. The Founding Fathers wrote such beautiful language about freedom. But they didn’t fully embrace the implications of that language. It is left to us, in our day and time, to make explicit what is implicit in the language.

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