Slavery simulation gives students new perspective

Maggie Hessel-Mial

Juan Bates sat in the woods underneath a bridge and quietly listened to the noise of the slave traders overhead.

He heard the footsteps, the chains, the dogs barking. He knew he and the rest of the students he was with couldn’t make a sound or they would be caught and taken back to captivity.

Bates was involved in an activity that many black men and women across the country are finding to be a valuable tool to connect with their ancestry: an underground railroad simulation.

Close to 40 University students participated in the simulation, sponsored by the African-American Learning Resource Center on Friday night at Camp Sunrise in Rush City.

Many said they were there to connect with the history of their ancestors. Others said they were looking for a new experience.

“I’m a strong believer that when you know your past you’re able to know a little more about your future,” said Faith Udeh, a College of Liberal Arts freshman. “If you see what you came from, you can see how far you need to go.”

The underground railroad, which began in the 1850s, was a system of mapped-out “safe houses” between which escaped slaves could travel to get to Canada or the northern states, where slavery was illegal.

Freed and former slaves – as well as white abolitionists from the United States and Canada – all played roles in getting between 30,000 and 50,000 black slaves to freedom. Before the railroad was started, some slaves were able to escape, but had a more difficult time doing so.

Bates, a CLA sophomore, said his experience has given him something on which to reflect.

“This simulation really makes you think about what you take for granted,” he said. “It makes you think about just how much freedom you have.”

The group arrived at the camp not quite knowing what to expect from the night. They knew it would change them but weren’t sure how or to what extent.

Many were scared after hearing from friends who went through the simulation. They heard it can be tough at times.

“I’m really scared,” said CLA freshman Anisha Mack. “But I want to really experience it.”

Bates said he thought waiting until it was dark enough to begin was a way to break down the students until everyone was really tired.

Sitting around a fire pit, conductor William “Tongrit” Green explained elements of the underground railroad. The participants watched as Green showed them African traditions the slaves had embraced.

After what Bates said felt like forever, the participants were lined up and split into two groups. The group they were put into would soon become a team. They would all need to stick together to get to freedom.

Each group of approximately 20 students lined up and was given last-minute instructions on what to do while in the woods.

The group set out at 11 p.m.

“The conductor kept telling us that we needed to cooperate with the whole group,” Bates said. “We had to do what we were told with no questions asked.”

The group traveled through the woods, and members were forced onto the ground to crawl on hands and knees.

As hours passed and the simulation continued, intensity increased and the “slaves” felt a growing sense of urgency and anxiety. The group members knew nothing aside from what the conductors told them. At times each had to wait alone at a hiding station.

“I felt scared and exhausted,” said Nicole Smith, a General College freshman. “There were times we were waiting in the forest for close to an hour, and I kept reflecting on how privileged I am.”

The scariest moment for many students was when they needed to cross a swamp and river.

“The slave master was right there and I really thought I would get caught,” Smith said. “My legs wouldn’t move, they were stuck in the mud. The idea of working as a team went out of my head and all I wanted to do was get myself out of there.”

But they all knew turning back was out of the question. It became even more obvious after the group encountered someone acting as Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous conductors on the underground railroad.

Tubman explained if anyone were to turn back she would be forced to shoot them to prevent the railroad from being found.

One girl lost her shoe midway through the simulation but had to keep going anyway.

“If you were really in that situation, you couldn’t go back and get anything you dropped or you would be caught and returned to slavery,” Bates said.

Close to three and a half hours after they started, the group was nearing the cabin where they had started.

The students ran the final quarter mile with slave traders closing in behind them.

“All I wanted was to get inside the cabin,” Smith said. “There was a line between slavery and freedom. Seeing the cabin was safe haven, but it felt like slavery was a couple of yards away and freedom was a hundred.”

The group made it into the cabin, but forgot to close the door as the slave traders closed in.

“Someone had to run and close the door,” Bates said. “The slave traders were banging on the door trying to get in to find us.”

After reaching freedom, the group met for an hour and a half to talk and debrief after their experience.

Some talked about what the simulation meant to them; others reflected on how scared they’d been.

Tony Diggs, AALRC coordinator, said he decided to take the students on the simulation because he wanted to provide an eye-opening journey.

The AALRC is an academic support unit on campus for undergraduates.

“(The simulation) is something many of these students have never experienced before,” Diggs said. “It can be fun, and it will last a lifetime.”

Smith said she agreed.

“This helped me empathize with what my ancestors went through,” she said. “This has changed my whole outlook on life. I realize how good I have it.”


Maggie Hessel-Mial welcomes comments at [email protected]