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Oxford and Beyond

Miami University to honor National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with Freedom Summer of ‘64 Award

Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center advocates for social justice.

Oxford and Beyond

Miami University to honor National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with Freedom Summer of ‘64 Award

Woody-Keown-headshot.pngMiami University will honor Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with the Freedom Summer of ‘64 Award for its efforts in advocating for social justice.

The award is bestowed by Miami upon a distinguished leader or an organization that has inspired the nation to advance civil rights and social justice. 

In Oxford in 1964 — at what was then the Western College for Women but is now part of Miami University’s Western campus — Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Bob Moses led the training of 800 college students to travel to the South to register Black voters.   

Miami strives to honor the legacy of those who worked for civil rights and social justice and, in the case of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, Freedom Summer activists who gave their lives in service to humanity.    

“The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, with its focus on ongoing social justice issues and through its role as convener of dialogue on freedom and human rights, exemplifies the commitment to social justice and anti-racism at the core of the Freedom Summer of ’64 Award,” said Cristina Alcalde, vice prescient for institutional diversity and inclusion at Miami.

President since 2019, Woodrow Keown, Jr., has led a team through a re-envisioning process resulting in a refreshed mission for the center, which includes promoting justice for all, building on the principles of the Underground Railroad, and serving as a national cultural learning center for inclusive freedom. 

 “I am overjoyed and humbled that Miami University is recognizing us for our efforts,” Keown said. “This award addresses our refreshed mission and speaks prominently to the work we are doing in advocating for social justice.”

Keown explained that the center’s new focus will include shedding more light on “those systems of oppression, like voting rights, which perpetuate white supremacy and jeopardize political freedom.”

He reflected on those who risked their lives and died in 1964 fighting for voting rights, remembering what he experienced firsthand growing up in the south and seeing racial oppression's effects.

In his youth, he witnessed the famous Little Rock 9, which was the first key test of school desegregation in the fight for educational equity. His father, an active proponent for equal opportunities, took him to numerous community meetings and events. 

“My father’s messages of equity and fairness got in my blood,” Keown said. “It instilled in me that sense of continuing my father’s legacy by becoming a fierce supporter and furthering his work until I can see we have made the progress we need.”

Working with organizations and institutions like Miami, the center is reaching out into the community to train and educate, especially the younger generation. 

“Many of the people who participated in community rallies around the world in 2020 were diverse and young,” he said. “They are the key to our future, and I want our center to be a part of inspiring these modern abolitionists  to continue what they started by with their global protests.”

The center is expanding its exhibits and programs and has been consistently operating on a five-day-a-week schedule since reopening in July 2020. Future renovation plans include the design and construction of the first permanent exhibit in the nation focused on social justice. This new signature exhibit will educate and inspire guests by delving into topics like voting rights. The Freedom Center is also considering opportunities with other organization on projects that includes honoring the legacy of the late Congressman John Lewis. Lewis was Miami’s first recipient of the Freedom Summer of ‘64 Award in 2018.

“Congressman Lewis fought for fair and equitable treatment of all citizens, and that is the core of our mission,” Keown said. “Thank you to Miami University for bestowing this honor to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and me, and we pledge to live up to these principles.”

The Freedom Summer of ‘64 Award has recognized such notables as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, radio talk-show host Joe Madison, former president of the League of Women Voters Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, NBA executive and basketball icon Wayne Embry (Miami ‘58), and his late wife Terri Embry (Miami ‘60), and Hollywood film producer/director Reginald Hudlin.