February 5, 2013

The Underground Railroad

Scott Evans take a journey on a mock underground railroad to learn about the life of an escaped slave.

Conner Prairie staff members (slave owners): They better hear you in your motherland of Africa! Those monkeys swinging in the trees better hear you screaming. Move the wood! Move the wood!

Scott: You are a slave.

Conner Prairie staff members (slave owners): Move the wood!

Scott: Your body, your time, your every breath belongs to a plantation owner.

Conner Prairie staff members (slave owners): The wood is worth more than you! Move the wood!

Scott: All day, you work in his fields and make him rich. You have never known freedom and though you long for it, you will likely never know it. But tonight, tonight is different. There is a chance to break free.

Conner Prairie staff member (slave owner): Move! Get to the back of the … line!

Scott: The year is 1863. This is the state of Indiana. Your slave owner wants to sell off his slaves to a new owner in another state.

It is a do or die moment. Stay and live in shackles forever, or make a run for it and maybe, just maybe, get a chance to taste freedom.

This is a lot more intense than I expected.

So, this is actually Connor Prairie, a living history museum outside of Indianapolis which gives people a real life look at The Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and paths that led runaway slaves from the South to free states in the North and Canada.

Michell Evans: That it wasn’t like we read in books. Indiana was active in The Underground Railroad. Fugitives came through here, but we don’t learn a lot about that history in school. And we felt like it was an important story to tell.

Scott: This program is called Follow the North Star because that was often the only direction slaves were given to lead them to northern states. They would actually travel at night following the North Star.

Sixty-five thousand people have participated in the program since it started sixteen years ago.

Conner Prairie staff members: What are you doing out here? It’s a bunch of darkies, ma! Now, we don’t’ want no trouble. Give me your free papers and we’ll let you go on.

Scott: Historians estimate that anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 slaves used The Underground Railroad. They were helped along the way by abolitionists, runaway slaves, freed blacks, Quakers and sometimes just ordinary people.

Conner Prairie staff member (Merrick sister): We want you to be free, but somewhere else! You can’t be free here. You’ll get us in trouble. Get out of here! You never saw us! And you were never here.

Scott: Everything was in code. Pretending to be talking about a real railroad that was being built in the 1800s, guides who helped slaves find their way were called conductors.

Conner Prairie staff member (Quaker): Into the house, friends.

Scott: Safe houses, where blacks would hideout, were known as stops and usually marked with a sign, like a candle in the window.

We can’t all approach the house at the same time so we have designated, like, our spokesperson.

Teen spokesperson: I am a friend of a friend.

Conner Prairie staff member (Quaker): We are friends also. This is a safe house. Are there others with you?

Scott: Along our journey, we saw how slavery impacted lives, from a fellow runaway slave looking for his brother…

Conner Prairie staff member: By any chance, you seen – any of you seen a tall, lanky colored fellow back there?

Scott: …to a carpenter who had lost everything because of the free labor slavery provided.

Conner Prairie staff member (carpenter): Single file! Now! They gave you specialized trade. I lost everything because of you! It’s your fault!

Scott: By finding a bunch of fugitive slaves, the carpenter had hit the jackpot.

Conner Prairie staff member (carpenter): You better be putting your chin down to your chest. That’s the last time I’m going to tell you. You understand me?

Scott: Under the law in 1850, any runaway slave caught was to be returned to their master, usually for a big reward.

Our journey goes on and we feel the ups and downs of life on the run.

Conner Prairie staff member (slave): These old slave snatchers, they don’t care. Free or fugitive, they’ll take us right on back, that’s why you can’t stay here. I got to move you on.

Scott: There is one last person we meet – a prophet who predicts our futures. Some of my friends will make it.

Conner Prairie staff member (prophet): I know that you’ll make it to your freedom.

Scott: I, on the other hand, won’t be so lucky.

Conner Prairie staff member (prophet): But I know that you’re caught, returned to your slave owner.

Scott: Back then, it would have taken runaway slaves three or more years to reach freedom and a new life. Less than half actually made it.

Michell: Remembering that these were real people; that those stories that they read in the history book are not just a story that somebody wrote down.

Simulation participant: They really opened my eyes to what happened and how everything would unfold, but what I took away from it is I don’t take my freedom for granted anymore.

Scott: Scott Evans, Channel One News.


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