I knock quietly on the door, hoping it’s the right one. Nine other people behind me huddle in the cold, dark night. We’ve been told this house will offer us shelter, but there are no guarantees. Already we’ve been screamed at, shot at, referred to as “bucks and breeders.” We’ve been threatened with death, or worse, being sold back South. But when I tell the woman at the door we’ve been sent by a friend of a friend, they welcome us inside, and we’re safe for now.
Conner Prairie’s Follow the North Star program is hard to define. It’s part play, part improvisation, part lecture, part educational experience. It puts you in the shoes of slaves brought to Indiana in 1836 who choose to escape and follow perilous underground railroad to freedom.
The program is not for the faint of heart. You’re in the dark, with only lanterns and firelight to guide you. The first portion of the program, when you’re sold into slavery, is designed to break you down. You are told to keep your eyes on the ground at all times, to never look a white person in the face. If you disobey or the slavers are feeling ornery, you will be ordered to kneel in the mud. It’s all designed to make you feel like cattle. It works. You learn with frightening speed to keep your eyes trained on the ground, to mutter “yes, sir” to any question.
But as horrifying as those moments are, the program also reveals some of the best of human nature. A fellow runaway shares her fire for a moment or two. A family of Quakers welcomes you into their home, offering food and what help they can. A pair of free sisters give advice on using onion grass to evade scent hounds.
Follow the North star makes you an active participant in history. Even though you intellectually know that these are well-trained actors you’re talking to, that their guns are full of blanks and that they’d never hurt you, the danger these slaves went through for a chance at freedom feels real and ever-present. We were only on our journey for 90 minutes, but a fugitive would spend at least two years on the run before making it to a free settlement or Canada and true freedom.
Follow the North Star is an important reminder for people of all races of our ugly shared heritage of slavery and the hope the Underground Railroad represented. We cannot afford to forget either history.
At the end of the program, we met a prophet who told each of us our fate. Some of us would escape to Michigan or Canada and live free lives. Others were captured and sold back into slavery. But when the fortune teller got to me, she stopped. “You’re injured in the woods,” she says. “You’re found by a Quaker family, and the others have to leave you behind.”
She never said if I lived or died, but I like to think I stayed with that family, right here in Indiana, and helped others find the way to freedom. I hope that’s what we’d all do.
Follow the North Star will return in April 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27, 2013. Tickets are $17 for Conner Prairie members, $20 for non-members. Participants must be at least 12 years old. Reservations are required. Click here for more information.