Teacher passes through Iowa City on 500-mile walk along Underground Railroad

Barry Jurgensen says human trafficking is today's slavery

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IOWA CITY — In 1858, two young women escaped from a slave holder in Nebraska City, Neb., after years of sexual abuse.

The escaped slaves, Eliza Grayson and a girl named Celia, whose last name is unknown, then traveled more than 500 miles to freedom in Chicago. Along the way, they likely endured more sexual violence, said teacher Barry Jurgensen, who is tracing the women’s route this summer, stopping at Underground Railroad sites during his trek.

He anticipates his walk will take 30 days.

Jurgensen passed through Iowa City on Saturday — 16 days and some 275 miles into his Walk Forever Free project. Despite its abolition in 1865, Jurgensen is drawing attention to what he views as the continuing practice of slavery — in the form of human trafficking — in the United States.

“When you look at the stories of young girls and boys today, they’re being kidnapped, they’re being tricked and they’re being coerced into a form of slavery, just like Celia and Eliza were in 1858,” Jurgensen, 32, said by cellphone on Thursday as he was entering Marengo.

Jurgensen, a native of Denison, said his decision to follow Eliza and Celia’s journey came after teaching students at Arlington High in Nebraska about the Underground Railroad. He began drawing connections between the escaped slaves’ stories and the stories of the children being bought and sold for sex in the United States today.

Jurgensen hopes to raise $50 per mile — about $25,000 — for the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an Atlanta-based not-for-profit working to end human trafficking and modern day slavery.

Donations can be made on the not-for-profit’s website, www.fdfi.org.

He also wants schools to take note. Instead of curriculum that treats slavery as a past problem, Jurgensen said children as well as adults should be educated on the “evolution of slavery.”

“It needs to be taught so that it inspires young people today to become abolitionists, to become more active,” he said.

One former student of Jurgensen’s, Austin Harms, is walking with him until his stop in Dixon — about 50 miles east of Iowa City. Harms, 18, of Fremont, Neb., said he hopes educating students about the risks of trafficking — which often begins with adults coercing and manipulating children in an effort to exploit them sexually — will protect students.

“We don’t really get taught that in school,” Harms said.

The curriculum Harms and Jurgensen would like to see implemented to more schools was developed by Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and also would educate teachers about how to identify a trafficker or a child who is being trafficked.

Since they crossed the Nebraska-Iowa state line, Jurgensen and Harms have weathered blisters, sunburns and 90-degree temperatures. But they’ve also found kindness, Jurgensen said, as many people along their route have offered them places to sleep and drivers have pulled over to give them bottles of water.

“You’re in pain, but you’ve got to just get up and tell yourself you’ve got to keep walking,” Jurgensen said.

Jurgenson aligned part of his walk with the Iowa City Pride parade on Saturday, and said all people need to come together to fight the injustice of trafficking.

“It is something that affects everyone in the LGBTQ community as well because they are also trafficked and targeted,” Jurgensen said. “Slavery is not race based anymore, anyone can be enslaved.”

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