“You have got to be quiet or the slave catchers are going to find us!” The rustles, thumps, whispers and barely veiled exclamations suddenly ceased. Pitch black darkness filled the hot basement room, and the boiler in the room beside us shuddered and hissed. I couldn’t see any of them, but at least my urgent words decreased the noise level. Unfortunately, it was too real, and I heard terrified sobs. It’s okay,” I said softly. “Come here. Who is it?” I ran my hand over the hair and held her close, reassuring them all that they would all safely make it to Canada. Eventually, I figured out who it was that wiped her tears on my dress.
The Underground Railroad has always intrigued me. So, when even my little blondies (who despite my best efforts, tend to make faces at each other during history class) waited anxiously for the next class on the Underground Railroad, I knew that I wanted to do something special. I had played “slave” as a child with my cousins and was captivated by it.
Leaning back with my coffee one afternoon in the staff room, I looked around at my co-teachers and told them how I dreamed of playing Underground Railroad with my students, giving them a chance to experience a drop of the cup that many slave men and women drank deep. The slaves had tasted fear, but they had also tasted freedom, and so they ran.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued. The Principal suggested using the computer cart or kitchen cart, covering it with a blanket, and calling it a wagon. He and the grade four teacher agreed to play an active part. I contacted a former student of our school who had a dog, and she agreed to be the slave catcher. A former co-teacher had the day off and came to hang out in the school basement to be a station master who would keep the students calm while they waited for the rest to escape. My helper wore all black and a black hat and barked very convincing commands as the slave owner. I slipped around the school, colourful scarf around my head, playing Harriet Tubman, trying not to laugh as I hid under desks and fell asleep with the “sleeping sickness.”
With the lights off in the hall, my students snuck to the grade four room where my co-teacher had gotten her students to make animal masks and had transformed her classroom into a candle-lit barn. She met us at the door with her white cap, shawl, and candle and accepted the four small hams that arrived. Some were scuttled; others were shuttled by wheeled chair in one door and out the other that was closest to the senior’s room. When the flag was in the window of the Principal’s classroom they were hidden in an empty cupboard or under a desks until they could be transported by cart to the supply room. Hidden among the stuff, they were then given directions to escape out the window and creep along the wall to a fire escape door. A learning support teacher, let them in the room and showed them to the basement steps where they descended into darkness—alone.
Some were stuffed unto empty shelves. Others hid behind program props, until all the students were in the basement. It was there that their excitement caused them to be so noisy, and I whispered, “You have got to be quiet or the slave catchers are going to find us!” The threat felt real as one of them had been caught and returned to the “plantation” before escaping again.
After taking the cobwebby, steep exit out of the basement, the students crept along the school wall to a side entrance where my helper, now wearing her normal clothes gave them a cart ride to the kitchen—Canada!
(Side note: if you happened to be one of our visitors the Thursday before Good Friday, my students don’t typically wear such ill-fitting, ripped, stained clothes. They were dressing the part of slaves.)
I got to wondering why nearly two hundred years later, we still find this horrible era fascinating. Intrigued we white men look at the courage, innovation, and determination that led the African-American slaves of the South to risk their lives to come to the “True, North, strong and free.”
The injustice repulses us. The bravery inspires us. The intelligence of a people treated like animals astonishes us.
While teaching these lessons, I did some side-line research. Did you know that many of those good-ol’ Negro Spirituals were written with a two-fold purpose? Not only do they talk of hope, but they also hid messages. “Steal away to Jesus” was used by Nat Turner, a slave who planned a revolt, to gather slaves for meetings. “Wade in ‘De Water” reminded slaves to walk in creeks to hide their scents from the blood hounds, because “God’s gonna trouble the water.” Another seemingly rambling, nonsensical song they sang was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This gave slaves escaping Maryland clear directions for how to get to free Ohio. [i] “Follow the drinking gourd. Follow the drinking gourd. There’s an old man’s a-waitin’ for to carry you to freedom. Follow the drinking gourd.”
Many slaves stayed in the free states, but when these were no longer safe, they went further to Canada. The little village where I live is said to have been where some of them settled. They are buried in the cemetery alongside natives of Scotland and England who lived here too.
Reading tombstones in the growing mist Wednesday night, I had no way of knowing just what colour of skin had been buried beneath me. In fact, the ones older than the mid 1800’s are too old to read.
Race and culture aside, we are all united in the universal truth. Somehow, some way each soul wants to be free. Every soul has its chains. Shackles fastened by the Enemy through circumstances and sin hinder us from being all that our Creator intended. Fear, impurity, and pride grip our hearts and keep us from loving, grip our hands and keep us from doing what’s right, grip our feet and keep us from walking the way we should go.
We listen to the lies. Like many slaves who came to believe that this was what they were made for, we stay trapped and don’t even think to escape that sin that entangles us.
What if we would unconditionally surrender? What if we would claim His cleansing and power? What if we would choose to love Him despite the unknown, to seek to know The One Who knows all and by Whom we are fully known?
What of these chains?
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Wow what an educational exercise for children! Wonderful post.
Your students will have a treasury of potent memories by the time they leave your classroom. That era is one that has always held such intrigue and horror for me as well. How little did I imagine I would be living in the heart of where so much of that horror took place. A place where black man and white man can now come together as equals. Yet the indelible mark of a colorful history still imprints the culture that it feels like complete freedom and equality is still somewhat of a illusion.
Sad isn’t it. That somehow humanity never completely learns.
I would have loved that high octane version of hide and seek as a child. And codes in song lyrics . . . fascinating. Good post.
Yeah, I must admit that I love to play still!