From preschoolers to octogenarians, 160 people walked a hazardous and circuitous journey from slavery to freedom in a immersion experience of the Underground Railroad on Sunday, February 5 at St. James in Upper Montclair.
Costumed church and community members embodied the roles of Underground Railroad “conductors,” a slave-owning plantation owner, slave catchers and historical figures, including escaped slave and famous underground conductor Harriet Tubman, escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and abolitionist Quakers such as Abigail Goodwin of Salem, NJ, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke.
Led in groups by four conductors, participants portrayed escaped slaves and followed clues to reach “safe houses” established in different rooms of the parish hall. There, they rested, ate a snack and learned from the historic re-enactors about the “railroad,” a secret route escaped slaves followed north to freedom in Canada. The plantation owner and slave catchers patrolled the halls, bringing any recaptured “slaves” back to the “holding cell” at the base of the church bell tower, from whence they quickly escaped again.
Ultimately, all the participants reached freedom in “Canada,” the nave of the church. The program concluded with an opportunity for participants to reflect together on the experience, followed by everyone standing and singing “We Shall Overcome,” hand in hand.
“The experience was not a game, but a sober reminder of a dark piece of American history and what happens when you make people ‘the other,’” said the Rev. C. Melissa Hall, St. James rector.
“These slaves were to us ‘the other,’ an object like a chair,” she said in a sermon in the worship service preceding the re-enactment. “Making someone ‘other’ makes them less-than-human in our eyes and gives us license to hate and abuse them,” she said.
She invited participants to consider this history and the ways we continue to diminish people’s humanity by treating them as “other.”
Portraying an escaped slave in the re-enactment made an impression on high school senior Jarad Collymore, one of 20 students from Newark’s Christ the King Preparatory School who participated in the event. “There’s a difference between teaching black history and feeling black history.”
Another student, junior Deladem Dag-Sosu, reflected, “The experience told me that, even if you’re labeled an ‘other,’ you can bring yourself out of it and you can open the eyes of others to the light that is within you.”
The re-enactment was part of a continuing series of educational programs on human rights, social justice and their connection to a life of faith.