Edited by Eoghan Hughes
Photo credit: Conner Prairie Website
Four figures wearing fur and carrying large wooden rifles slung on their shoulders stood around a campfire laughing loudly. As we approached single file I could make out only a log cabin, surrounded by a thick forest, the 4 figures, and the campfire, but barely anything else. It was late November, and Central Indiana just had its first snowfall of the season. The snow crunched under our feet as we lined up, still single file, in front of the log cabin. Our owner motioned to the four figures as they approached slowly. Before they arrived, our owner warned us to answer any questions with a “yes sir” and “no sir” and to keep our heads down, we were not allowed, under any circumstances to make eye contact or lie about our what skills we possessed. For the next 90 minutes, I was to be a runaway slave on the Underground Railroad, and I had no idea what those ninety minutes would entail. I was at the mercy of total strangers. My only task: to follow clues and to escape into the freedom from which I had only minutes ago taken for granted. I wondered if I would manage to escape, judging by the silhouettes of the characters I was about to meet, it would not be easy.
“Bucks! Take a step forward!” A young girl made the mistake of doing so.
“If you could drop a baby outta ya, then you ain’t no buck! What are you stupid!
Now get back against the wall.” One of the figures, a giant of a man just under 2 meters tall wearing a wide brimmed hat and a fur coat approached me.
“What are you looking at! Don’t you look a white man in the face. Put your head down now! What do you do?”
“I’m a carpenter” I replied. (I worked as a carpenter for my dad’s remodeling business for a few summers and I felt my knowledge about the topic was adequate.)
“If you’s a carpenter then what is a plane used for?”
“It makes the wood nice and smooth sir” I replied.
“If you’re goin’ round using a plane, then let me see your hands”
I took my gloves off, a yellow light from the fire, dancing around with the unpredictable wind, reflected haphazardly against my now freezing hands.
“There ain’t no calluses on there and you ain’t no carpenter! You lying to me boy?!”
Immediately I felt an urge to defend myself. Even though these calluses were not from woodworking, I had calluses sticking out from the rest of my palms like exclamation points at the ends of my fingers from lifting weights but I soon learned that arguing was no use.
“Get down on your knees, now!”
The ground was nearly frozen. I thought for a second, was this guy serious? My hesitation sparked another burst of angry commands. Soon, a mixture of mud and snow slowly gave way as I felt my now soaked and muddy knees (and my favorite pair of jeans) sink deeper and deeper into the mud next to the glow of the fire a few feet away. The men now divided our group into separate lines. The scene was chaotic. I couldn’t look up, but I heard the forceful commands from every direction. I expected to get tied up, I didn’t, but regardless, where would I run? What seemed like acres of dark forest surrounded us. For a second, I thought this was it, I would never get out again. I knew this was all a reenactment, but still, I felt a deepseated injustice being done to me. I hated those guys already and even though we were just getting started, I wondered if I was going to be one of the lucky ones and make it to freedom. I was on my knees, I didn’t know the terrain, and the slave traders carried meter long rifles: the odds were stacked against me.
When I read the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park website I was sceptical: “90 minutes can last a lifetime.” The webpage guaranteed “you’ll walk away with a lot to think about.”
Follow the North Star is an interactive historical experience. Along with a group of 17 others, I was to be a runaway slave on the Underground Railroad; a network of trails, hiding places and people, established to help slaves escape north to free states or to Canada.
The year is 1836 and the only source of light are campfires and lanterns with candles inside of them. We are in a thick forest on the outskirts of a free Indiana town, in the distance I can see faint lanterns lighting up the windowsills of the homes which we would soon seek help from we were told that on the Underground Railroad this was a sign people were willing to help.
We are divided but taken to another cabin where we hear our next orders. “Move this pile of logs to that pile and don’t even think about stopping until you hear us say so.”
Indiana was supposed to be a free state but slave traders like the ones minding us proved that Indiana was no safe haven. The importation of slaves into the US was officially abolished in 1808, which only meant there was now a limited supply. To those slave traders, we were worth a lot of money.
“Get a move on it! Get them logs over on that side.”
We hustled back and forth, getting in each other’s way. Gravel crunched under our quickly shuffling feet.
“Get off the road…. hurry up…..stay in line.” The orders kept coming: disorientation reigned.
As a former history teacher, I was intrigued by the idea of taking part in an experiential activity rather than learning from the traditional history book, or passively watching a documentary. The director of the park claims that “this handson experience can lead to a much higher level of learning than takes place from studying a textbook for example.” During one of my last curriculum and development classes during the senior year of my BA, a colleague tried to recreate the Underground Railroad on campus. We must have looked ridiculous, walking around campus blindfolded, holding hands and trying to get to our next destination. I remember that I left this particular experience thinking, “what a great way to teach history!” but it certainly was not a “90 minute
experience that lasted a lifetime.” Therefore, I walked into the experience at Conner Prairie expecting something similar; I was wrong.
The slave traders looked, talked and even felt like the real deal. Soon enough we would learn that the rest of the historical recreators were every bit as real.
We continued to move the logs from one side to the other.
“Hey, pssssst. They’ve gone back by the fire” said an older man, accompanied by his daughter.
In fact, they did, with a bounty of $500 on our heads, I figured this was a chance to get away. For a second we all looked at each other, we were lost in more ways than one, the old man and his daughter were already heading towards the town, with a feeling of helplessness, we followed. We soon crossed the bridge leading to the town, a sign that read “The Union. It must and shall be preserved” hung on the top of the post and lintel structure, making the experience even more real.
We were now far away from the campfire. I felt like I wanted to blow up the bridge behind us so that we can be sure the slave traders won’t catch up to us.
We followed a road but it was dark. We aimed for the only visible marker, what looked to be a barn painted stark white.
“Who goes there!”
A lady that looked like she came out of the painting Whistler’s Mother approached us. She wore a long black dress with a white cloth on her head. She was one of the local residents. Soon her 2 daughters joined her.
“What are you doing here?”
“Where is father?”
“What should we do?” The 3 women took turns voicing their dislike.
They took us inside quickly but with a certain hesitation. We were now hiding in their barn but the tone of their voice was enough to let us know how they felt about us.
“Put your head down and don’t look at us!”
(I was getting used to having my head facing the ground and found myself doing it even at the Quakers home, where we were not expected to do so.)
These women looked at us like cattle, not important enough to be helped, and dangerous enough to be got rid of from their property as soon as possible.
At first I really thought they would help us, but really they themselves were in the same precarious situation; trapped in a system created by greed and immorality that they just so happened to come in contact with. It wasn’t the only moment in history that people would get swept up by dubious forces and would forget to stand up for what is right. On the way to the Quakers, as we shuffled down the dirt road, figures hunched, I thought about what I would have done if I was in their place?
You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. I began to realize the magnitude of these uncertain situations that people were placed in, the environment that was created, how could you act any different than what the system wanted you to do? The next character we met, was a victim of this system, representative of another group of people affected by the abomination that was slavery.
Jebediah was the character that stuck with me the most because he represented the precarious situations that humanity is too often confronted with. Calm at first, Jebediah was someone I thought we could trust. He showed empathy at our condition, we were cold, hiding behind a barn (some of us even soaked, especially around the knees), nowhere to go.
In an earlier life, he was a talented carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina. A respected man who earned a bountiful wage, but soon lost his job to slaves who did the work for free. On his journey to the North, a free market society absent of slavery where he could charge for his services, his daughter took ill and died. His wife also passed during the journey, according to Jebediah, from grief. In the middle of this story, Jebediah began to change his behavior.
“Don’t you look at a white man in the eyes you cattle.”
Jebediah worked himself up and began to hear voices from his late wife. He was clearly a drunkard, delusional, mentally unstable, corrupted by the system.
“Don’t worry honey, I am going to take care of you two, don’t worry.”He said to himself.
“You think I’m going to help you for all that you’ve done to me? You took away my wage, and now I am going to get my money back by turning you in!”
He told us not to go anywhere but who knew what would happen if he returned. Clearly he wasn’t all there, and we took advantage of this.
We ran like hell, and soon found ourselves in the home of a Quaker family who piled us into a 5x8m room. The door began to shake with a vengeance. It was Jebediah, and he now had a rifle.
“I know they are in there old man, open up or you will regret it! I’ve got one of your kind here.
One man from our group exclaimed, “my daughter, where is my daughter!” In fact, his teenage daughter was no longer in our group, we looked at each other with fear and disappointment. We were supposed to act together and leave no one behind.
My buddy whom I brought along, Suade, looked at me, puzzled, “should we do something?”
He returned my question with a blank stare.
Jebediah’s now crazed words vibrated against the foggy, single pane window of the Quaker’s home.
“I’ve had enough of you old man!” Jebediah shouted.
We heard what sounded like a young girl’s helpless scream. The father looked terrified and then, a loud gunshot vibrated in everyone’s ears. At that moment, I was in 1836, in Indiana, running away, and Jebediah was hot on our heels. I was lost in the moment. Again my thoughts overwhelmed me. Would I survive? Would our group make it to freedom?
I thought about the time I visited Auschwitz. “ There were so many prisoners, why didn’t they just rebel? Run away?” As a 20 something year old European, and a former teacher of history, I was bombarding myself with questions. Many of my students had the same questions after we watched bits from The Pianist, a movie about Jews trapped by Nazis in a Warsaw ghetto; why didn’t they just join forces and rebel? Or run away? It is easy to ask that question when you are sitting in a classroom, or a movie theater eating popcorn. It is a different story when Jebediah is following you with a rifle in a land you know nothing about. How could you make any decision when what you have to go on is next to nothing; new terrain, strange people, I was at the whims of historical time. I thought I knew history, what it was that really happened, but at that moment, I realized that only NOW I really only began to understand. I’ve visited Auschwitz twice, but it took coming to Conner Prairie to understand why something like the Holocaust could have happened, and why people acted the way they did.
I thought about making a decision, being decisive, saying to my group, “let’s take this trail, maybe we can lose him if we take this way……” But at the same time, what if he was there, and it was I who led my group back to captivity, or maybe even death. I stayed silent. At least one person spoke up, “let’s go this way.” It was the old man who lost his daughter. I was glad someone made a decision. The rest of the group was silent, we just followed. At this point, I felt like we may be close to “freedom” but Jebediah was still out there.
For slaves on the Underground Railroad, that was the least of their worries. Children crying, wet and cold winters without the luxury of campfires, dogs, wolves, starvation; these are just a few of the obstacles runaway slaves faced on the journey to freedom.
I thought back to the advert that drew me here: “you will walk away with a lot to think about.” The reenactment wasn’t even over and already I had a million thoughts running through my head. I expected to learn something about the Underground Railroad, I came away with a lesson in hegemony, group psychology, empathy, and
indeed as the director claimed “a higher level of learning” than I could not have been able to ascertain from just reading a book.
A dim lantern, facing the outside into the street, that was the clue we were looking for and somehow we managed to escape the crazed Jebediah. Was this it? Did we make it?
The last stop on this reenactment was a relief, but also an eye opener. Although we managed to outsmart the crazed Jebediah, out of the 18 people in our group only 3 survived. The last recreator, an older soft spoken woman spoke to us from the porch of her home. She was the “soothsayer” who predicted our future (based on historical statistics). Suade, myself and another young man were singled out. She spoke to us with a gaze from the top of her cabin’s porch.
“Young men are the most likely to take risks, they are strong, and therefore they were most likely to make it to freedom.”
I felt relief.
She pointed to others. “You will die crossing a river. You 5 get caught and are brought back to Mississippi. Your child cries and are found by Jebediah and shot.”
I felt relief, and then a pang of guilt; I made it and the others did not.
After a final wrap up and discussion, we learned that the old man and the daughter that was “shot” were plants put in our group by the park to make sure everyone was ok (some people can’t handle it). We were “on the run” for an hour and a half and that was enough to inculcate in us a feeling of inferiority, a feeling of helplessness, a complete disorientation and uncertainty that paralyzed us. We all shared our impressions about how we felt then, but I know that mine will stay with me for much longer.
As an educator, the experience taught me that there are some things that are difficult to learn by simply reading about them. You may know about the “what happened” but the emotions, motives and decisions of the people involved may be difficult to understand. I found this experience to be worthwhile because it was successful in conveying to the participants exactly these elements. I learned the meaning of slavery; a complete loss of agency and systematic inculcation, marked by a feeling of inferiority. This experience made me think about the importance of “coming to terms with the past.” This is something that is still an ongoing process in Europe, in some parts more than others. I thought about my experience at Auchwitz, the experience of watching 12 Years a Slave with my Euroculture program mates at our annual research conference. I also thought about the resurgence of movies dealing with the less attractive European past. Movies such as The Pianist, and more recently the Oscar winners Ida and Son of Saul from Poland and Hungary respectively. The persistence of this topic fulfills a need for many people in the central and eastern part of Europe to properly come to terms with these tragic events; something that the region could not do under authoritarian communist governments.
This tragic history is more recent than the history represented at Conner Prairie. Therefore, I will stop short of suggesting that something like this should or could happen at places like Auschwitz, it may be too early or simply it may be too sensitive of a place for such an undertaking. I do want to point out however that the need for coming to terms with the past is very real for many people, groups, even nations. Movies and museums provide us with a framework with which we can discuss the past. They provide characters and names that people can use to reference past events and situations. They provide physical and nonphysical arenas for discussions and in many cases arguments. Movies however do have their limits, after all, without further discussion they are just objects to be consumed passively. Therefore, we should be aware of the need to come to terms with the past, and also consider best practices of doing so.
Watching 12 Years a Slave with a large group of my classmates was a powerful experience, but it could never replicate my Conner Prairie experience. The moment my decision making center shifted from my brain to the viscera that occupied my gut will be something I will never forget . I finally knew what it was like to have no control, to be a part of a situation, a historical concoction of power and its abuse, that I hope never happens again: in the US, in Europe, anywhere.
The opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of The Euroculturer.