WC Has Direct Connection to Underground Railroad Freedom Center

April 6, 2006

As the nation directed its gaze on Cincinnati in mid-August with the dedication of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, two members of the Wilmington College faculty can take pride in the roles they played in seeing the center become a reality. Catherine Roma directed the 700-voice choir that was such an integral part of Monday's dedication and Larry Gara was an original member of the center's board of directors. Also, his 1961 book, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad, is considered a landmark publication. Roma, associate professor of music and director of the Wilmington College Chorale, is well known in Cincinnati for forming choral groups for special occasions as a community service. She is director and founder of MUSE, Cincinnati's Women's Choir and the Martin Luther King Coalition Chorale, the latter of which has performed at the city's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration each year since 1991. Roma put together a choir two years ago for the Underground Railroad Freedom Center's groundbreaking ceremony and even took a portion of the group to Dayton, Lexington and Cincinnati's Fountain Square in promoting the center. "Performing at the dedication has always been in the works," she said, noting that the 700-voice choir began rehearsing in May. While the goal was "wonderful music-making," Roma said the experience proved to be much more, as the choir represents the spirit of cooperation and communication espoused by the center's mission. The singers reflected a wide spectrum of persons in the greater Cincinnati area. "These men and women represented different races, ethnicities, neighborhoods, age groups and faiths," she said, noting it wasn't unusual at rehearsals to see an Indian Sikh seated beween a person of Irish decent and an African-American college student. "Many people from all walks of life who were part of the Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement were never known — I see these singers as representing them," Roma added. "I believe music has the power to bring us together and the people making connections while working together in rehearsals was something very special." The Freedom Center Choir's performance was greatly appreciated by the audience and elicited several standing ovations for such renditions as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and a "vibrant" arrangement of the Civil Rights Movement's anthem "We Shall Overcome." "Everybody in the audience was up and holding hands," Roma said. "All of us knew we were a part of something very special." Gara, emeritus professor of history, recalls more than 40 years ago when three publishers turned down his book on the Underground Railroad, explaining, "they didn't think anybody would buy it." Last week in a story about the Freedom Center's upcoming dedication, the New York Times cited Gara's book as "a classic." The Liberty Line was the first major book about the Underground Railroad that was written to include the perspective of fugitive slaves and other enslaved persons, as well as abolitionists. His book dispelled a number of legends surrounding the Underground Railroad and focused on facts.The Times wrote, "The force of Mr. Gara's argument remains." The Liberty Line has been a staple among college readings on the topic for parts of five decades. It was last reprinted in 1996. Gara, an original member of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Board of Directors, also wrote an essay about the Underground Railroad that appears in the National Park Service's brochure on the center.