Terre Haute middle schoolers ‘experience’ Underground Railroad

Feb. 23—Students at Sarah Scott Middle School didn’t just learn about the Underground Railroad this week.

They experienced it through an interactive play in which they portrayed slaves escaping from a southern plantation, facing dangers and possible recapture and finally making it to freedom in Canada.

“We’re trying to give them an immersive event where they can step into the shoes of Africans who became enslaved … to see what it could have been like during that time,” said Nichelle Campbell-Miller, school social worker who helped organize the program.

The North Star Experience was offered as part of Black History Month.

School staff were dressed for their parts, whether as a slave, plantation owner or those who assisted along the Underground Railroad, a network of routes, places, and people that helped enslaved people in the American South escape to the North.

Students traveled throughout the school building, with rooms and other spaces depicting an auction block, cotton plantation, an assisting family’s home and even the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Terre Haute.

Allen Chapel was an actual stop on the real Underground Railroad.

The lessons taught through the North Star Experience are important because “it’s not necessarily taught in our history books and for me, I am a hands-on learner. I know a lot of our kids are, too,” Campbell-Miller said. “If we want the information to stick, we have to give them different mediums to comprehend it.”

She hopes the experience makes students more empathetic, which ties in with the school district’s focus on kindness initiatives.

All students went through the experience this week, including eighth graders on Friday.

Campbell-Miller described some of the reactions from sixth and seventh graders.

“They say it was scary; it’s informative. They could never be a slave because they would want to fight back,” she said. “They couldn’t believe anyone would ever want to sell somebody.”

Afterward, students debriefed with school staff, first in small groups and then in one large group.

Ana Morris was one of the eighth-graders who participated Friday.

Movies don’t provide a firsthand experience, she said. “It’s important students understand how deep these things could be and how important it is to know about our history.”

Morris said Black History Month “is deeply rooted to my history. People make racist jokes every day; they don’t think it’s serious — they call each other slaves,” she said.

She hopes those participating Friday realize their actions and words have an effect. “It’s not happening to them now but think about the past and what people went through being murdered or taken hostage or taken from their homes,” she said.

In the North Star Experience, Emmitt Tyler II portrayed a slave who, at a church, provided a group of students (depicting slaves) with information and clues as they were about to begin their journey to freedom.

The slaves would be given fake freedom papers.

They should always keep their head down and not act out or call attention to themselves — otherwise, they would be left behind. They should never run. If a slave on the route had a white string in their hair, they could be trusted; not all slaves could be trusted.

As they journeyed, authorities might stop them and ask to see their papers, Tyler told them.

Every year, the school has different Black History Month activities, Tyler said in an interview. One year they learned about Africa, another year, segregation.

This year, it was the Underground Railroad and slavery. “We’re trying to keep it as honest as possible so they know what happened,” Tyler said. He believes the immersive experience was an effective way to teach important lessons.

Eighth grader Dorien Hickey said the North Star Experience “looked pretty realistic from all the movies I’ve seen. I learned about how some of the slaves were treated back then and how they would be examined and sold off like objects at an auction.”

He added, “It didn’t make me feel too happy.”

The experience taught some hard, but important lessons, Hickey said.

“If they don’t have an understanding of what happened in the past, they won’t have an understanding of the future, either,” Hickey said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com. Follow Sue on X at @TribStarSue.

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