Living A Slave's Life

Underground Railroad Immersion participants learn what it means to lose their freedom

Cover Story

February 04, 2007|By Article By Jonathan Pitts | Article By Jonathan Pitts,SUN REPORTER

It's late in the afternoon -- 5 o'clock, you reckon by the setting of the sun -- and your breath rises in clouds as you look at the pile of straw beside your feet. It's a goodly stack, 2 feet high if it's an inch, as big a one as you've made all day. You look over at the other slaves in the field -- Rebecca, Charles, Anne and the rest -- and you see it's bigger than theirs. You hope the slave driver comes by and takes notice. It might get you a little more to eat tonight, maybe a blanket to keep the cold away.

Not that you like Red Sam, the overseer who's watching you.

You decided a few months back to become a "slave" for a day, to be a part of the first Underground Railroad Immersion Experience in Montgomery County.

You knew they were going to blindfold you and the others, march you into the woods someplace, and put you to work the way slaves worked on Maryland plantations in the 1850s, when slavery was still legal in this country.

You knew that Anthony Cohen, the historian and project organizer, and his staff would transport you to a period of history they see as key to our nation's character.

You wanted to learn about freedom by seeing what it was like to live without it. But you really weren't prepared for Red Sam.

There he is now, in his big straw hat. Big as a barn, looking down on you from the top of that hill like some king with his crown. Carrying that walking stick like it was the staff of Moses. A black man, lording it over the slaves, telling them what to do!

He's the one who told you to pull up this sedge today but never said how.

You did it wrong, and he came over and prodded you with his cane. He said he had a warm cabin and soft bed near the plantation missus' house. He has it comfortable, and if you messed that up, he'd mess you up.

Black, white or in-between, on the plantation, everybody looks out for what's his. Your fingers are getting blisters, you're starting to feel the cold, and you sure hope Red Sam comes by to check your pile.

Captured by history

For Tony Cohen, the best way to know the past is to live it. One time, when a professor asked him to write on a period of history that had gone unrecorded, he picked the Underground Railroad.

He looked through enough old newspapers, slave narratives and court papers to write his first book: The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County: A History and Driving Guide (Montgomery County Historical Society).

Later, he walked from Maryland to Canada, 800 miles, following old escape routes and sleeping in the old safe houses to get a sense of what it felt like.

He did something else unusual. He mailed himself to New York in a wooden crate. That's just what a runaway slave he'd read about, Henry "Box" Brown, did 150 years or so earlier.

It got so hot in the box, Cohen says, he had to cut his pants legs off with a pocketknife. When he finally got out and filled his lungs with that warm, smoggy city air, it was the sweetest air he'd ever tasted.

He got famous, too. If he hadn't, we wouldn't be at the slave immersion today. Smithsonian magazine wrote about his walk north. Web sites tracked his progress. NBC did broadcasts.

Finally, Oprah Winfrey heard about Cohen. She put him on her show in 1996. She said she needed his help. She had bought the movie rights to the Toni Morrison novel, Beloved, and was about to play the part of a runaway slave for the film.

She had read a lot about slavery, but she didn't know what the life was really like. She asked Cohen to show her.

At first, he was flummoxed. On his walk north, he visited sites more than a century old; he hadn't exactly lived as a runaway slave lived. But he and some friends pooled their knowledge of slave narratives and oral histories and designed a version of what Winfrey wanted.

Using a farm in Sandy Spring, they re-created the world of a 1700s plantation: a stuck-up master, a harsh slave driver, a dozen yard slaves, and lots of labor.

On her first morning, the slave driver ordered Winfrey to move a pile of boulders from one side of a field to the other. She did. The master came out, got angry and ordered her to move them all back. She did that too.

After seven hours of what was to be a two-day immersion, Winfrey broke down sobbing and quit. She later told Cohen the day taught her so much about history, human cruelty and the gift of freedom that it changed her life. He should offer it to others, she said.

Today, 10 years later, he and his foundation, Menare, are opening a version of it to the public for the first time.

They've toned it down a little, this Underground Railroad Immersion Experience. You're not hauling any boulders. But after an hour or so, your back aches from the bending, your fingers are scratched, and if you only had any idea where you were, you might think about running away.

The missus comes and goes, in her brown, ankle-length dress and bonnet, doling out water from a tin pot. Her expression is disapproving. Her boy James, a scrawny teen in a vest, follows her, giving you dirty looks.

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