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Friday, December 08, 2006

Boxcars of Pork on Underground Railroad

WILBERFORCE, Ohio -- There are 7 Underground Railroad stations in this Southwest Ohio village, all sites where brave souls aided thousands of Americans who escaped from slavery. There are two universities with predominantly black enrollments and one of them, Wilberforce University, was the first campus in the nation to accept African-American students. And there's the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, which was so designated by Congress in the 1980s.

Inch-for-inch, nowhere else can match the village as a center of black history. The grave of the first black officer to serve in the U.S. Army is on its outskirts. The community itself was settled after an act of ethnic cleansing in Cincinnati, where angry mobs of whites drove out all the city's blacks in the early 1800s. They found refuge when Britain's Lord Wilberforce offered land.

But, so far, about $100 million in federal, state, city and private funds have been shoveled into the Freedom Center, the National Underground Railroad Museum that opened a few years ago on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. It was built after race riots took place in April 2001, and former U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, now President Bush's budget director, secured nearly $20 million in federal money for the project. Critics called it pork, and scholars who served on a National Park Service panel that studied how to protect Underground Railroad sites complained that any Cincinnati claim as a haven during the slavery era was dubious. Their best argument: Harriett Beecher Stowe left Cincinnati before she dared publish, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book changed the course of history by increasing Northern revulsion against slavery.

The Freedom Center now needs more money, and Ohio lawmakers in Columbus have apparently agreed to place $2 million in funding in a new spending bill for capital improvement projects across the state.

An anti-tax group in Cincinnati, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, is fanning a revolt, and notes on its Website that Freedom Center officials "made wildly unrealistic budget and attendance projections." COAST, which was founded by ultra-conservative Republican State Rep. Tom Brinkman, says taxpayers should not bail out the non-profit center, which already has gotten more than $50 million in public funds. COAST sees it as a prime example of pork barrel politics and profligate government spending. The anti-taxers are aiming most of their fire at GOP politicians.

''Once again, out-of-touch Republican leaders in Columbus have shown exactly why they were overwhelmingly rejected by voters at the polls in November. They have continued to turn their back on the core constituency of the Republican Party -- those who favor limited government spending and taxation,'' said Jim Urling, COAST's chairman.

Two suburban townships, Sycamore and Anderson, have passed resolutions urging lawmakers to kill the bailout, meaning the anti-taxers argument is generating some traction. From the start, many conservatives voiced doubts about the museum's value.

And then there is Wilberforce, an hour up the highway from the Freedom Center, a genuine beacon of hope for those yearning to break their chains during the bleak days of slavery, but now a bypassed siding on the Underground Railroad. Maybe somebody needs to throw a switch on the tracks so the boxcars of state money roll into the 7 stations there.

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