Traveling the Underground Railroad
Students study past and modern-day slavery
"It is amazing to think that not too long ago, people were traveling to freedom along the roads we now use," says Daniel Beaupain, a ninth-grader at Bethany Christian Schools, Goshen, Ind. He and twelve other students participated in a weeklong study of the underground railroad as part of the school's Interterm (see photos and reports of other groups), in which students step outside of the traditional classroom setting to study special topics offered by teachers.
One of the highlights for the group was participating as slaves seeking freedom in an intense interactive simulation at Connor Prairie, a living history museum near Indianapolis, Ind. Students were "sold" at slave auction and along their way to freedom met a belligerent Southerner, a reluctantly-helpful farm wife, a slave hunter motivated by financial rewards, a Quaker family, and a free black family.
The simulation began with actors portraying slave buyers verbally abusing the students as they were auctioned. "I was amazed at how quickly we were all dehumanized," says ninth-grader Ali Hochsetler Classmate Christina Beaupain adds, "Even though I knew it was pretend, it felt real. I kept reminding myself that for real slaves it was a thousand times worse; I will never think of slavery the same again." Even after the simulation was over, Hochstetler notes that it was difficult to look at the actors for fear of being yelled at.
During the course of their weeklong study, students also learned about local involvement in the underground railroad, visited historic sites in Indiana and Ohio, and toured the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Students learned about people known to have been involved in aiding freedom seekers in Elkhart and LaGrange counties-incidentally the only two Indiana counties to vote in 1851 against prohibiting more blacks to settle in the state. Among the local abolitionists were the editors of the two newspapers in Goshen at the time: Charles Murray of the Goshen Express and E. W. H. Ellis of The Democrat (a forerunner to the present-day Goshen News). Students learned that Goshen was on a route between two Quaker settlements (Richmond, Indiana, and Young's Prairie/Penn, Michigan) and of some of the recorded incidents in Jefferson Center and Bristol. Ninth-grader Russell Klassen found the local study particularly interesting when he realized that underground conductors Abner Blue, William Martin, James G. Mitchell, and Col. Henry G. Davis are buried in his church's cemetery (Pleasant View Mennonite Church).
Christina Beaupain enjoyed visiting the homes of prominent underground conductors Levi Coffin in Fountain City, Ind., and John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio, and realizing that "this is where heroes of the past lived-and did their secret work." Classmate Nik Diaz-Marquez says, "I liked hearing about Levi Coffin and John Rankin who were willing to risk everything to help slaves because it was the right thing to do. They put others first before themselves."
"Whenever I heard the word ‘slave' I thought of black people owned by white people," says Hochstetler. "At the National Freedom Center in Cincinnati that changed. I learned that there are so many slaves today, all over the world, in many different situations," such as chattel, bonded and forced labor, child labor, migrant labor, and sexual trafficking. According to the May 2008 Reader's Digest (p. 181) the U.S. State Department's low-end estimate of people trafficked into the U.S. is 14,500 annually with more than 43,000 slaves at any given time. Modern slavery is just not as obvious or condoned as it was prior to the Civil War.
In thinking about ways to oppose modern day slavery, junior Si Gustafson-Zook shares, "Buy foods locally or that are marked fair trade instead of food from large corporations that don't pay their workers ample compensation."
Daniel Beaupain has another idea: "One effective way of being a modern day Levi Coffin would be to publicly oppose racism. When some says "Nigger" or tells a racist joke, give your own views to that person. That attitude could spread."
Ninth-grader Taylor Ann Krahn, contrasts her experience in the simulation at Connor Prairie with that of Kunta Kintae (in Roots) being whipped for his refusal to acknowledge his English name Toby: "I admired his courage for bearing physical pain, whereas I cowered under harsh words and gave up my identity in two seconds in the simulation. I realized that there is another type of slavery today not usually mentioned. Slavery that comes from trying to constantly fit in and not having a sense of yourself. That is the slavery I will keep fighting."