Sunday, February 28, 1999

Fifth-graders travel 'Underground Railroad'

Camp simulates slave experience for Kenton kids

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON, Ohio — For a few hours last week, 67 Caywood Elementary fifth-graders entered a dark woods and traded their present-day identities for those of escaped slaves fleeing for their lives in 1851.

        As groups of about a dozen youths walked a mile-long trail illuminated by their teacher/conductors' lanterns, they ducked in and out of the underbrush at unexpected noises.

        Traveling through the chilly night air, the student “slaves” visited seven stops of the Underground Railroad, seeking temporary refuge in an abolitionist's shop and huddling in the attic of a friendly stranger, as one of their saviors “shot” a would-be captor just below them.

        “Slaves” who dared to look a white person in the eye, or answered a question incorrectly, faced ridicule or worse.

        “John Hancock?” a skeptical slave hunter shouted at a group of student/slaves, as they presented their false traveling papers. “What kind of a master name is that?” he sneered.

        At another stop, a sheriff threatened to hack off a foot, or cut out the tongue of any “slave” caught running away, or lying.

        “This must be what it felt like to be a slave,” Kenton County Schools fifth-grader Steven Grayson said as he and his classmates hid behind a fence, awaiting the return of their abolitionist protector.

        And that, Caywood teacher Wendy Humble said, was the purpose of the exercise.

        “There's an old teacher proverb that says, "Listen and I will hear, show me and I will see; but let me do it, and I'll remember it,'” Mrs. Humble said. “I could stand up and lecture about the Civil War and tell them how slaves were treated, but it's not the

        same thing as experiencing it.”

        For the past 15 years, thousands of students from schools throughout the Tristate have taken part in the Underground Railroad living history experience at the YMCA's Camp Campbell Gard in Butler County, said Marsha Rolph, the camp's associate executive director.

        While the re-enactment of the Underground Railroad is intense, the purpose is not to traumatize youths, organizers said. Rather, the goal is to make the experience as realistic as possible, so that youths have an appreciation for the tremendous risks escaped slaves faced, as well as the special qualities of the abolitionists who helped them.

        “This is the nth degree of where prejudice takes you,” said Julie Stubbs, the camp's assistant outdoor education director.

        The Underground Railroad, so named because slave owners lamented that it was as if their laborers “had disappeared on some underground road,” was an informal network of routes that thousands of slaves used to escape to the North between 1830 and 1860.

        While some slaves settled in free states such as Ohio and Indiana, many fled to Canada, especially after Congress passed a strict fugitive slave law in 1850. Under the law, those caught harboring slaves faced up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each slave they hid.

        To help transport 20th century students back to that era, Camp Campbell Gard's outdoor educators first lead their youthful “slaves” into a rec hall, where they witness a re-enactment of real-life slave, Tice Davids, fleeing from his Kentucky master, en route to a safe house in Ripley, Ohio.

        As they embark on their journey, the youths are warned to look downward when addressing anyone other than a slave, and they practice Civil War-era songs to prove their cover story that they're a choir traveling North with their master's permission.

        Students and parents who took part in the experience said it was so realistic that they sometimes forgot they weren't fugitives.

        “It was cool,” said 11-year-old Adam Huber. “It taught us how the slaves felt.”

        Parent Beth Palmer said she could imagine how Jewish people felt during the Holocaust, when she and a group of students crouched in an abolitionist's attic, as a protector argued with their pursuer below.

        “My daughter was very impressed,” said Mrs. Palmer, who add ed her older son was jealous that he didn't take part in the Underground Railroad experience. “Cassie would do it again in a heartbeat.”

        Several students said they were surprised to learn that looking down on a person, or teasing them because of physical or mental characteristics, or their beliefs, was also a form of prejudice.

        Caywood teacher Jane Cochran said the experience gave her pupils a better understanding of the unfair treatment of slaves, while co-worker Krista Decker compared it to hanging out with fictional time-traveling teacher Ms. Frizzle, of Magic School Bus fame.

        “I thought it was awesome,” Mrs. Decker said. “It really put the kids in another person's perspective.”


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