Tuesday, April 25, 2000

'This is our history'


Indiana museum immerses visitors in the lives of runaway slaves

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FISHERS, Ind. — As the sun drops below the horizon, seven escaped slaves trekking toward freedom find trouble in the woods: an angry, gun-toting white man.

        “On your knees!” he yells, and the runaways, myself included, obey. “Don't look at me! Keep your eyes down! You ain't good enough to look at me.”

        The year is 1836. The man with the rifle says he will take us to Kentucky and sell us. He orders us to stay on our knees, then leaves to fetch help.

        Now's our chance. “Run!” somebody says.

        As we sprint down a dirt road, we hear what sounds like a gunshot behind us.

        “I don't like being chased, so when we made a run for it, I was crying,” Alexandra Emmanoilidis, a Purdue University student, says later. “I was totally immersed.”

        She was immersed in “Follow the North Star,” a portrayal of the Underground Railroad, the largely informal network of free blacks, Quaker abolitionists and others who helped runaway slaves reach freedom. The program is offered by Conner Prairie, a living history museum a few miles north of Indianapolis. For 90 minutes visitors become runaway slaves and are treated as such by the costumed interpreters they encounter.

        Since its debut in November 1998, the program has drawn about 7,000 visitors; half of those were school groups.

        “We readily admit it's not a program for everybody,” says Michelle Evans, Conner Prairie's historic area manager and co-author of the North Star script. “We've had folks say it doesn't show the whole range of the history of slavery in America. We can't do that in 90 minutes.”

        But the program does show that attitudes toward slavery varied greatly in the free state of Indiana. As slaves, we never know if the next person we meet will be friend or foe. @subhed:Back in time @colText:

        After an introductory session, a museum volunteer leads our group — two white men and five white women — outside to an open field. It's no longer the year 2000, she says. Soon we'll meet our owner, who plans to sell us illegally.

        “Your master's waiting yonder,” the volunteer says, and then she's gone.

        “Get down here!” the slave owner demands. He has a gun, and an acid tongue. He immediately gets in the face of Doug Lumley, one of four Purdue students in our group.

        “What you lookin' at, boy?” the slave owner bellows. Then, louder: “I asked you a question. What are you lookin' at? You keep your eyes on the ground, boy. You don't look at no white man. You understand me, boy?”

        “Yes, sir,” Mr. Lumley says softly.

        Another slave trader orders the “breeders” and “bucks” into separate lines, the better to size us up before the sale.

        One of them notices the note pad in my hand. “What's that, some kind of readin' book? If they wanna know where you got that book you tell 'em you found it and you gonna use it for toilet paper. You hear me, boy?”

        “Yes sir,” I say. @subhed:The intimidation @colText:

        Characters never use the “n” word. Conner Prairie's African American Advisory Committee, composed of educators, museum officials and community leaders, thought it unnecessarily harsh.

        “There are a lot of other ways to intimidate people,” Ms. Evans says. “We use words such as "buck' and "breeder' and "wench' and "boy.' And we use a lot of physical intimidation, whether it's invading people's space or (making them) walk up and down a steep hill.”

        Visitors trek about a mile and a half during the program, held outdoors and in the museum's 1836 village. It happens at night, when runaways usually traveled (although our session, the first of the evening, ended in twilight). Daytime sessions are available for school groups.

        Ms. Evans says she knows of no other program in the country that offers an Underground Railroad experience on this scale.

        She and the other script writer, Doug Heiwig, worked on the program for two years before it opened to the public in November 1998. Early on, they consulted with a Quaker historian from Earlham College (which is affiliated with the museum), a psychologist, and the program archivist for African-American history at the Indiana Historical Society.

        The archivist, Wilma Gibbs, has participated in the program several times and is impressed.

        “At any given moment, we can step out of those roles, so we'll never feel the intensity of what those folks — be they slaves or slave owners — experienced. But this is about as close as we can come to it,” she says.

        “It doesn't matter if you're black or white or your ancestors were slaves or slave owners. We all have a stake in this. This is our history.”

        Despite doing extensive research, Ms. Evans says it's unclear how many slaves traveled the Underground Railroad because few written records were kept. Estimates range from a few thousand to more than 100,000.

        Places such as Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky, played a significant role in the movement. The city will be home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, scheduled to open on the riverfront in 2003.

        The Underground Railroad's reach also stretched into the Indiana countryside. @subhed:Heading north

        @text:

        “What do you think you're doin' out here?” a farm woman asks our group. “Get your eyes down. Don't look at me. You're escaped slaves, aren't you?”

        She takes us to her barn, before the slave traders, who have left us alone momentarily, return.

        “I reckon you got a right to live somewhere free. But not here. You're too much trouble here. I got neighbors that would burn down this barn if they find out I'm hidin' you here.”

        She tells us how to find people who will help us. Look for a light in the cabin window. But she warns:

        “You gotta be suspicious. There's wolves out there. ... Slave hunters. It doesn't matter to them if you got papers or not. The only thing that matters to them is the color of your skin, and yours is the wrong color.”

        We do, in fact, cross paths with a slave hunter. A Quaker negotiates a deal to free us, but the slave hunter demands that one of us — a woman — stay behind.

        Later, Mr. Lumley, one of the Purdue students, says the scene made him consider what it would be like to leave behind a friend or relative.

        “Would you really run?” he says. “You probably would. There's nothing else you could do.”

        Finally, we come to a cabin with a candle in the window. It's the home of Abner and Charlotte Ward, free blacks originally from North Carolina. We're ushered inside, where a crackling fire burns in the hearth.

        “Things is hard enough for folks such as us who are free with papers that can prove it,” Abner says. “So you best keep on headin' north. Look to the drinkin' gourd in the sky, the Big Dipper. Look straight off from that cup over there and that's the North Star. You keep followin' it till you're safe.”

        The last person we meet is the Prophet, who looks each of us in the eye and reveals our fate. One of us drowns trying to swim a swollen river. Another finds her way to Canada.

        The Prophet stands before me. “They caught you and sent you back to your master. He branded you as a runaway,” she says, and I feel a lump in my throat.

        “But the next time you go, you make it.”

       



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