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

Working on the railroad: Castmembers take their places in a Cleveland park where participants will learn by reenactment what it was like to be slaves being helped to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
William Rieter/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Going back to the 1850s: Sherrie Tolliver (right) gets into character as "Lissie," an Underground Railroad conductor in Cleveland’s reeanactment program.


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.

• • •

“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.”

Civil War buffs Anne Johnson and Carol Andrews are here for the first time, hoping for an authentic experience. “I do some Civil War reenactments, but I’m hoping to get a little taste of the slave experience,” says Ms. Johnson.

“If I lived during that time, I hope I would have been involved in the Underground Railroad,” says Ms. Andrews.

To prepare participants, Casavecchia, who wears a plantation-owner costume asks everyone to put their head down on the picnic tables, close their eyes, and start to forget 2008. He traces racially motivated incidents backward – the Rodney King riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, murders of civil right workers.

• • •

They lift their heads to see the glow of torches lighting a swath of a field in the distance. The “slaves” are quiet as they follow their escort toward the light.

Cast members are frozen in place as the “slaves” emerge into the torch-lit area.

Suddenly, there’s shouting and shoving: “Get down on the ground, get down on the ground!” The grass is wet and cold. Anyone who looks up is told to get to their feet and IS roughed up by the players. Women “slaves” are asked to dance. Their hips are measured for breeding purposes and then they are shoved back with other “slaves.”

The sound of a whip is heard in the distance. Someone is running, and then a gunshot splits the air, and everyone jumps. First-timer Williams is on the ground crying softly. Everyone is ordered to their feet and told to form two lines. People are separated from those they came with, just as the slaves were separated from family.

Casavecchia, as the plantation owner, forces everyone to the ground again and tells them to sniff the dirt. He says, “That dirt is more valuable to me than you are.”

Tonight’s “slaves” have been bought to tend his cotton plantation. But when he leaves to fetch a wagon for the “slaves” to load with wood, the Underground Railroad conductor arrives, racing them quickly through the woods, and sprinting across an open field with barking dogs in pursuit. The “slaves” learn to read the signs of help along the railroad and how the 19th-century slaves learned to care for themselves for months at a time in the woods.

They meet strangers – some helpful, some dangerous – and they rest briefly around Peg Leg Joe’s fire as he teaches them the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” on his guitar. But they can’t stay. The steps and shouts of bounty hunters are heard. The “slaves” are silent as they quickly follow the creek.

The smell of kerosene fills the woods as red lanterns line the path. North Union Shakers invite the group to stay with them, but the “slaves” opt to press on to Canada.

Suddenly, chaos erupts as bounty hunters jump from the woods, grabbing “slaves.”


Amid the sounds of gunshots and the barking of dogs they run through the woods. Tree roots and branches threaten to down them at every step. But when they break into a clearing, they see a park shelter transformed into a tavern run by an Irishwoman who has hot apple cider, corn bread, and sweet apple butter waiting.

Slowly the cast streams out of the woods singing “Amazing Grace.” Conductors help everyone find friends and family. When everyone is accounted for and hearts have stopped racing after two hours in the woods, Casavecchia leads a discussion. He asks people to shout out the emotions they felt: anger, panic, shame, sorrow, worthlessness, vulnerability.

He reminds them that while slavery has been abolished, bondage has not. Human trafficking for the sex trade continues today, he says.

Sherrie Tolliver, who plays a conductor and serves as technical coordinator, answers questions about the Underground Railroad.

The two Civil War buffs, who are white, found the experience realistic and were surprised by the anger they felt toward the white people. Williams agrees that “it seemed so real.”

Her earlier tears, she says, came because the program “brought out the fear and powerlessness in me. The auction felt so out of control. I heard the strong male voices, and I couldn’t help but think of the clients I work with who are victims of domestic violence, and I just felt so vulnerable.”

Walker says even though she’s been through the experience several times, “It is always something for me to be among people who don’t share my skin color, but share in such a strong emotion. I appreciate that and I’m going to keep bringing people to this program.”

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