What would you do if someone owned you - body and soul - and the only way you could escape was to leave in the middle of the night - abandoning your friends, family and venturing into a great, dark beyond?
That's what Estherville Lincoln Central fifth-graders did all day Wednesday when they studied the Underground Railroad that ferried runaway slaves from safe house to safe house and finally to freedom.
Local historian Jeanne Egeland told the students about the Underground Railroad and how it really wasn't a railroad but a path slaves took toward freedom. To mark the route and show which houses would harbor slaves and which to stay away from, quilts were hung with signs known only to slaves. Egeland presented a quilt to the school with the following ten quilt blocks:
Adrienne Rosfjord hides in a box the size of the one in which Henry “Box” Brown, a 200-pound man, mailed himself to Philadelphia.
Photo by Michael Tidemann
n Monkey Wrench - Gather all the tools needed for the journey. "Tools" did not necessarily mean hammers and wrenches. Slaves gathered supplies to construct structures for shelter, for direction like a compass, for defense, to gather food, for purchases such as food and to be cunning and alert and knowledgeable and determine if strangers were friends or foe.
n Wagon Wheel - Pack the provisions you need as if packing for a trip. What would you put in your wagon? Take only what would be essential for survival.
n Bear's Paw - Follow the trails of bear prints. The bear tracks lead to food and water. In Ohio, along the Underground Railroad, there is an area known for its black bear population called "The Firelands". A bear population existed along the Appalachian Mountain range stretching from the southwest area of South Carolina to the range's northeast axis along charted Underground Railroad routes.
n Crossroads - Cleveland, Ohio.
n Log Cabin - When this quilt hung over clotheslines or fences it indicated either a safe house or a house to avoid. The pattern usually had a red center to represent fire. Some patterns were constructed with a dyed black centerpiece (blue indigo was often considered "black" because it was made by "black" people; the centers may have been organically dyed black or blue indigo). Some felt this quilt was hung by resident slaves to indicate to others to avoid the house, as the owners did not help slaves. Yellow centers, like a beacon of light, may have indicated a safe house where slaves could take refuse.
n Shoofly - Shoofly may have represented an actual person that helped steer slaves to safety during their journeys. Shoofly could be either a man or woman, like Harriet Tubman.
n Satin Bow Ties - "Exchange double wedding rings" meant to let go of the bonds of slavery. The rings represented the chains slaves were often forced to endure. Churches provided refuge for slaves, helped them remove chains if they were still bearing them, gave them food and shelter and donated a clean set of clothes. It was important to blend in with common people, since there were bounty hunters looking for slaves to capture and return to their owners for profit.
n Flying Geese - The geese represented both slaves and real geese flying north. When this quilt was hung out to be seen, one set of geese would occasionally be colored a separate color than the rest, indicting true north. It also meant that slaves should start looking to the geese as guides, noting the direction they flew and their eating/traveling habits.
n Drunkards Path - A warning to slaves to move in a zig-zag fashion and occasionally double back over their steps to trick slave trackers.
n North Star - A guiding light for fleeing slaves. The North Star has always been connected to the Underground Railroad. The song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd", is a song of directions and warnings for slaves on the run. It refers to the Little Dipper, pointing to where the North Star can be found.
Egeland said there are 16 versions of the Underground Quilt.
"I love to quilt and history is my thing," said Egeland. "It's just something I thought the kids would be interested in."
Like stops along the Underground Railroad, students made 'stops' in different classrooms where they enjoyed interactive experiences with a number of hands-on projects.
In teacher Brenda Reeves' room, students used iPads to scan computer codes that sent them online to a film about the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia where workers there were ready for him. Brown, a 200-pound man, spent 27 hours inside a small crate. Students took turns climbing into a crate exactly the same size that Brown hid in.
Iowa was also an active part of the Underground Railroad. Students again used iPads to scan codes and determine locations where slaves passed on their way toward freedom.
In Abby Schacherer's room, students watched a movie about seven generations of women who went from being slaves to having their freedom. They discussed "show ways" such as quilts that showed slaves what to do.
In Joan Lauritsen's room, students read the book "A Thousand Miles to Freedom: The Escape of Ellen and William Crary". Ellen, who was light-skinned, pretended to own her husband William who was disguised as a woman as they fled to freedom.
Reeves said Egeland was inspired by events that had helped slaves to escape and that fifth-graders would carry a secret with them all day Wednesday - a secret they couldn't reveal until the end of the day. She hopes other community members with expertise in different areas will be inspired to volunteer their time to work with kids in school on special projects.
Other teachers participating were Robyn Swisher and Julie Larsen.