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Escaped Slaves Followed the North Star to Freedom

Follow the North Star participants learn about slavery at a re-enacted outdoor auction.

Recreating the escape route to northern states and Canada for fleeing slaves

"History by immersion," is how the Conner Prairie interactive history park outside Indianapolis, Indiana, describes a program about a perilous journey to freedom endured by escaped southern slaves during the 19th-century. It is an unforgettable walk in the woods that has special meaning during February, which is Black History Month in the United States.

The program is called Follow the North Star. The name is adapted from an old American Negro spiritual song, Follow the Drinking Gourd.

Their new owner speaks harshly to participants before they escape and make a run for freedom.
Their new owner speaks harshly to participants before they escape and make a run for freedom.

In the years before and during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, escaped slaves fled northward, hiding by day and moving furtively at night. Often their only guide was Polaris, the North Star, which they found by tracing the handle of the Big Dipper constellation, or Drinking Gourd. But even when they crossed the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, they were by no means safe. Slave catchers scoured free northern states like Indiana, looking for runaways.

That's the story that's re-created, ultra-realistically, at Connor Prairie. Follow the North Star is held outside and at night and in all kinds of weather. Participants of all races play the part of blacks who are rounded up, divided by sex into what the slavers call bucks and breeders, and sold like cattle at auction.

With help from white Quakers and free blacks, the fugitives escape and seek safe houses along what came to be called the Underground Railroad. A high-school girl who says she learned more about Civil War history there than she could in any classroom summed up the experience. "It was really intense," she said, adding, "I felt like an animal."

At the end of the program, each person learns his or her fate as a fugitive. Some are captured. Others, had they been actual slaves, would have been among those killed. Many participants spend the entire hour and a half in tears. For sure, just as in real life almost two centuries ago, not every runaway slave makes it to Canada and certain freedom.