Be a fugitive slave for a night in “Escape on the Underground Railroad”
Cleveland offers the historically curious a sample of the heart-pounding panic, anger, and tears of escaped slaves making their way to freedom in Canada
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All is quiet in this wooded valley – for now.
Autumn’s sweetness is in the air as water rushes over rocks in Tinker’s Creek and a golden sun sets trees aglow in the Cleveland Metroparks Bedford Reservation.
But gathered in the picnic shelter on this early October evening is a cast of volunteers set to recreate a world as far from peace and tranquility as possible.
“Escape on the Underground Railroad,” a recreation of a run for freedom that uses volunteer actors to help put participants in the shoes of runaway slaves, is set to begin.
There will be panic – chases with howling hounds and heart-pounding dashes for cover in the dark; anger – “slaves” thrown to the ground and humiliated; sorrow – real tears shed. And there will be a tangible connection made to the history of this area, a stopping point on the secret route of abolitionist safe houses used by escaped slaves on their way to Canada in the 1850s.
This is the final night of the Garfield Park Nature Center’s 12th season of reenactments and will be for adults only. Park manager Carl Casavecchia reminds the crew of this and asks them to “turn up the intensity.”
As the crew sorts props, gathers long skirts together with safety pins, and counts kerosene lanterns, Mr. Casavecchia has more reminders: The effigy is hanging in the tree, don’t put the “slaves” under the lit torches, and if someone gets hurt, the code phrase the cast should use is “Moses is going to Canaan.”
Then the crew disperses into the woods to get in place before the 60 participants – men and women, white and African American arrive to take the roles of slaves in 1852.
Ohio was always a free state, but following passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, escaped slaves could be captured anywhere in the US. So on this night, the “slaves” were Canada-bound. Whether the uUncerground Railroad went through these woods isn’t known, but Casavecchia says nearby Broadway Avenue was a route along which slaves were secretly transported in hay wagons into Cleveland to board Lake Erie boats bound for Canada.
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“You need to leave all things from 2008 here and go back in time,” Casavecchia explains to participants. “You’ll meet people along the way. Can you trust them? That’s up to you to decide.”
Some of the characters are based in history, such as the North Union Shakers who settled nearby Shaker Heights. There’s also Peg Leg Joe, played by Paul Certo. “He was a former sailor who worked odd jobs on plantations and taught the slaves the song, ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd,’ which instructs them to follow the stars north to Canada, where slavery doesn’t exist,” explains Certo.
Kevin Bailey plays a runaway slave named Josiah James, who has a $2,000 bounty on his head. Throughout the night, characters are searching the woods for James and other “slave” participants.
As darkness sets in, participants stream into the shelter, ready for adventure.
“It always stirs my emotions,” says repeat participant, Margie Walker, an African American who always tries to bring someone new to share the experience. Today she has brought her friend Claudette Williams, who is also black.
“I want to be surprised and I’m hoping for an adventure,” says Ms. Williams. “I hope it’s informative and maybe a bit more ... emotional.”