Cedar Rapids students journey to freedom in Underground Railroad immersion program

Event open to the public Saturday at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Center

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TODDVILLE — Clay Felton is a nice man. Those who had breakfast with him Friday said he was quiet, but quick to share a joke or laugh at one.

Felton wasn’t quiet — or laughing — when it was time for him to play the overseer.

“I am your overseer!” Felton shouted to the group of McKinley Middle School students standing in front of him. “You are going to work for me from sunup to sundown! Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!” the students yelled.

The next few minutes were an example in futility as Felton had the group pick up pieces of wood at one end of the field and deposit them at the other — only to do it again. Soon, students were complaining of tired feet and shortness of breath.

“Why is he so mean?” one girl asked.

“This is what we do,” Felton yelled. “We work all day from sunup to sundown! That is all we do!”

But “we” meant them — the sixth graders from McKinley and third graders from Garfield Elementary School, who were at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Center for the African American Museum of Iowa’s “Journey to Freedom: A Trip on the Underground Railroad” program.

The students were “enslaved” the moment they got off the school buses, working for the overseer until his daughter, Virginia, helped them escape.

Running to freedom on the Underground Railroad, the students were guided to four stations by their shepherd, learning a new skill with each stop that would help them along their journey. The immersive program fulfills two roles: it informs participants of Iowa’s role in the Underground Railroad, while letting them experience firsthand the journey escaped slaves made in order to be free.

“It was scary,” said Michelle Poe, the African American Museum of Iowa’s director of education. “This was a dangerous journey for the slaves and there was no guarantee that they’d make it to freedom.”

Jessica Britton, who played Virginia, was one of several volunteers to give up a day of work and/or school to volunteer with the program. Originally from Maryland, Britton said she wanted to expand her knowledge of the Underground Railroad.

“I learned about the Underground Railroad from the East Coast perspective and thought it would be interesting to learn from Iowa’s perspective,” she said.

For instance, Iowa’s path did not go south to north, but west to east. Most of the slaves who used the Iowa trail were on their way to Canada.

“Iowa wasn’t a huge part of the Underground Railroad since only one state, Missouri, was feeding in slaves, but it was part of it and we want more people to know this,” Poe said.

From learning how to follow the North Star to what was needed to create a fire, the students spent a rainy morning perfecting their survival skills.

“My favorite was probably playing predator or prey,” said Jeremy Throndson, 11, a McKinley sixth grader.

Using the prairie grasses as camouflage, the students hid from each other, demonstrating how escaped slaves had to learn how to use the elements available to shield themselves from anyone who would return them to their master.

Darshaun Smith, also a sixth grader at McKinley, said working with the overseer was his favorite part of the program — even if it didn’t make sense to run back and forth with logs.

“You had to do what he said,” Darshaun, 11, said. “You had to listen.”

Playing the overseer wasn’t Felton’s first choice.

“I kind of got last pick,” he said. “I love the exchange of knowledge, though, and I’m very interested to see what the kids do with this information. For that, I can be mean if I have to.”

If you go

Journey to Freedom: A Trip on the Underground Railroad is open to the public at 6 p.m. Saturday at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Center, 10260 Morris Hills Road on Toddville.

The program is free and each hike will last approximately 90 minutes, with participants traveling two miles on uneven terrain.  Comfortable clothing and all-weather shoes are encouraged.

Due to the subject matter presented, participants must be at least 8 years of age. 

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