Students walk in a slave’s steps
With their heads bowed and standing behind a heavy link chain, a group of “runaway slaves” awaited their fate as their “conductor” conferred with a bounty hunter on how many of them he would have to give up to let the rest pass through Wilton.
The episode was just one part of the project in which fifth graders at Cider Mill School get a small taste of slavery by traveling the Underground Railroad at Ambler Farm. While it is not known if the farm was a stop on the railroad, it is likely that escaped slaves passed through the property on the way to William Wakeman’s house on nearby Seely Road. Wakeman was an abolitionist in the 1800s, and his home, which still stands, is a verified location along the railroad that was a network of people who arranged for transport and sheltering of slaves fleeing the South for Canada.
The students came to the farm in groups on Thursday and Friday, April 20 and 21, and gathered in the white barn, where they learned for the next few hours they would be play acting as slaves. This is the 11th year the school and the farm have offered this program.
Music teacher Dan Fox, who wrote the simulation with fifth grade teacher Tim Gallo, offered the children a sober introduction. He asked them to imagine they were young West African children living in a small village as slave ships came to shore and the men aboard kidnapped entire families. He told them they would walk for days, for weeks, tied together by the neck. They would be whipped if they moved too slowly and left to die if they were too old or sick. They were silent as he told them, “This is just the beginning of your suffering.”
As the ship’s captain, Dan Riley, in his nautical coat, told the students to put their heads down because they were not to look at a white person. As they sat on the floor he ordered them to squeeze together. “I will cram you into the lower deck of my ship without enough room to sit up or roll over. … You will be packed in naked with your heads shaved so you don’t spread lice.” Anyone who was sick with a contagious disease would be thrown overboard.
Four of the students were picked to be “auctioned.” One was deemed a risk because he was missing teeth. Another had had his Achilles tendon cut and his tongue cut out because he was a troublemaker. A third was thought to be the sister of the first slave — a bad sign since they could conspire together. Finally, the plantation owner — who wanted to increase his “stock” — purchased a young female slave trained as a house slave with cooking and sewing skills. She had one child with the promise of being able to have more.
With that, the students gathered with their classes, and with a leader as conductor, they visited four safe houses where they learned about life as a slave and life as a runaway.
On their way to the first house, one group was intercepted by the bounty hunter. Their conductor lied, telling him he was taking the slaves “north to work.” Not willing to let them slip through unscathed, the bounty hunter demanded he be given three slaves to take back south for a profit.
Their first stop was manned by Stephen Hudspeth, who played the role of a plantation overseer and described how a slave would be expected to pick 300 pounds of cotton a day. He explained that in 1850 — the time period they were simulating — slaves were the country’s most valuable asset, worth some $3 billion collectively.
Their next stop was Wakeman’s home. He warned them that bounty hunters and the sheriff — played by teacher Kevin Meehan — would be after them. With that, a loud bang on the door came as he motioned for each of them to be silent.
He explained the role of a conductor — one who guided escaped slaves on their journey — and stationmaster, who sheltered them for a night.
In a dark outbuilding, Harriet Tubman, portrayed by Adrienne Reedy, awaited them. Tubman was born a slave and suffered at the hands of a cruel overseer. She married a freeman — a former slave — but when she decided to escape he would not go with her. She had to leave him behind. She traveled part of the way with her brother, but he turned back, afraid. She finally made it to Philadelphia, where she started a new life. But missing her family, she went back to guide them to freedom as well. She eventually led so many slaves north she earned the nickname Moses.
The final stop on this group’s journey was the workshop of New Englander Eli Whitney, who died well before the 1850s but whose most famous invention greatly affected slavery. When circumstances brought Whitney to the South in the late 1700s, slavery was actually on the decline because picking cotton was so labor-intensive. A natural-born tinkerer, Whitney came up with his cotton gin, which separated the tiny cotton seeds from the plant fibers. It made growing cotton profitable and so massive swaths of land were turned over to this one crop, and thus more and more slaves were brought to work the land.
Back at the white barn, Reedy addressed the students, asking them how the experience they just had made them feel. “Sad,” “scared,” “nervous” were some of the responses. One student was “disappointed in U.S. history” and another was “confused why people would do it.”
Reedy told the children her grandmother was born in 1847, and her grandparents on both sides were born in Alabama and North Carolina.
“I guarantee you slavery is part of my history,” she said, but added it was not something her family talked about.
“I was fortunate to have parents who loved God, people, and life and wanted to instill that in us,” she said, adding that she hoped “you would look back on this day and never forget how you feel. … I hope you guys will be the generation that says, ‘Not on my watch.’”