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Retracing slaves' road to freedom

HARRIET TUBMAN, a former slave born in Dorchester County, led hundreds of slaves on 19 reported expeditions from the South to the North.

Her path to freedom was the Underground Railroad, a human chain of abolitionists who worked to safely transport runaways from the slave plantations of the South to the free communities of the North.

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During the mid-1800s, thousands of slaves were smuggled to freedom through safe houses, which could have hidden compartments in cupboards, floors and closets.

Today, people across the nation, including some in Baltimore, are participating in walking tours, attending slavery re-enactments and taking bus tours to experience the hardships of the past along the Underground Railroad.

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Staging history

This month, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pa., will stage Living the Experience, a play that retells the stories of individuals who worked on the passageway to freedom.

The church, founded in 1817, was one of many destinations along the Underground Railroad.

But don't plan to watch the stage production; audience participation is a must.

Joyce Hitchcock of Baltimore, who has attended the play, says of the production, "You're so involved in it. It's like you've gone back those 300 years and you're right there."

Some audience members find themselves praying at an altar alongside the actors portraying slaves, while others end up on stage singing songs of encouragement.

"These were songs they sang just trying to get through each day," says Hitchcock.

In one scene, a slave serves her master while he boasts about how he tortured and murdered her brother. Immediately, she rushes out of the room to console herself in the kitchen. The slave's sister finds her and tells her to return to the dining area or the master may kill her.

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"You feel everything that she's feeling," Hitchcock says. "This country needs to heal with truth, and this play is just the tip of the iceberg."

After the performance, the audience meets with the play's lead actress, Phoebe Bailey, to talk about the play.

That discussion's purpose is to "make sure you understood what you saw. She gave information and talked about the different songs," Hitchcock says.

Living the Experience runs each Saturday this month through December, beginning at 1 p.m. Matinee showings are at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for groups of 35 or more only. Meals after matinee showings are available by arrangement.

Individual tickets are $23 and do not include the meal. A group rate of $30 per person is available for groups of 35 or more and includes the meal. Children's group rates are available.

The church is also hosting a conference on the underground railroad, "Revealing the Truth: We Wish to Plead our Own Cause," Feb. 9-11. It will include the exhibit Lest We Forget, a private collection of slavery artifacts and Jim Crow memorabilia. Joe and Gwen Ragsdale of Philadelphia are the curators.

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For tickets or information about the play and the conference, call 800-510-5899, ext. 113 or 717-509-1177, ext. 102 or visit livingtheundergroundrailroad.com. E-mail conference@livingtheundergroundrailroad.com for conference information.

Walk for health, history

No one knows the exact paths of the secret network of passageways slaves traveled, their way marked through cornfields and forests with piles of stones, hollow trees and safe houses identified by a glowing front porch lantern, but several routes that ran directly through Baltimore and surrounding counties have been traced and recorded.

In May, walkers participating in the fifth annual Health Freedom Walk in Baltimore will take a five-mile journey along the route symbolic of the interconnected paths legendary freedom fighters traveled.

"It was almost like I could feel their spirits there with me," says Jeanne Charleston, Freedom Walk founder and Community Health Awareness Program director. "I was walking across the very same ground my ancestors walked."

The walk begins at St. Mary's Park -- the heart of the historic downtown Seton Hill neighborhood -- where Baltimore-based Sankofa Dance Theater will help participants warm up in a 15-minute routine that involves tribal rhythms of pulsating drums.

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The Johns Hopkins University Gospel Choir will lead the group out of the park singing inspirational spirituals.

On Orchard Street, walkers will pass by the infamous Orchard Street Church, noted as a key stop on the Underground Railroad. It is believed that former slave Truman Pratt founded the church in 1825. "There is a dirt tunnel beneath the church that slaves crawled through [that] we show them," says Charleston. No longer an active church, it is now the Baltimore Urban League's headquarters.

The walk, which will pass by other monuments including the Civil War Museum and Douglass Terrace, is peppered with heartfelt performances by actors portraying the struggles of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Henry "Box" Brown, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

"The woman who plays Harriet Tubman had me in tears," says Charleston. "She does a part where she re-enacts her actions out in the woods carrying a shotgun and she says, 'Don't you dare turn back or I'll shoot you right now.' I felt like I was on my way with her to freedom in Canada."

The walk's final passage down Pratt Street, returning to St. Mary's Park, covers what is called Baltimore's Trail of Tears. "Slaves ships would dock right where the Inner Harbor is today," says Charleston. "They would put [slaves] on auction blocks and shepherd them to bondage. It's called the Trail of Tears because it's the first time slaves hit land after being on a ship for months only to be separated from their family for life. As you can imagine, there was a lot crying going on there."

The walk's primary goal is to promote physical activity among African-Americans in an effort to reduce future diagnoses of hypertension and diabetes -- all controllable through diet and exercise. The walk's creative element -- a lesson in black history -- is simply one of several tangible rewards, she says.

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Walking tours are scheduled in Baltimore City and Montgomery, Kent, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and Howard counties. Exercise training for the walking tours begins in March.

Charleston says she anticipates 1,000 people will participate.

"Those before us have left a legacy of history," says Charleston. "I want to leave a legacy of health."

The walks are scheduled for Howard County, April 22; Baltimore, May 6; Montgomery County, May 13; Kent and Queen Anne's counties, June 10; and Prince George's County, June 24. Each walk will begin at 10 a.m., with registration beginning an hour earlier.

For more information, call 410-669-6340 or visit champandyou.org.

Bus tour

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Ride the trails to freedom on a tour bus ride this summer to Detroit and Canada.

From July 31 through Aug. 5, Metro Tours will host the bus trip to these destinations on its Underground Railroad tour, which takes tourists to various sites and museums along the way.

The tour goes to Niagara Falls and Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit.

Among other African-American history-themed activities, travelers will take the guided Niagara Freedom Trail Tour in Niagara Falls, which includes sites like Bertie Hall and Lake Erie.

Bertie Hall was once a station on the Underground Railroad; today it is a museum that replicates the living situation of runaway slaves who hid in secret rooms behind the walls of the house.

On the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, the tour group will survey the vast body of freezing water that slaves faced before they reached freedom.

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Geraldine Hellams of New Jersey, who has taken the tour, says the trip underscored the courage of slaves seeking a new way of life.

"I don't know if I'd want to follow these people," says Hellams. "[The slaves] had to be courageous. It's like we're going on a journey not knowing where we're going and if we'll get there safely."

Tourists are amazed at the conditions the slaves endured during their journey to freedom, says Iona Williams, a Metro Tours travel agent based in Baltimore.

"It's amazing that they traveled and swam across the water. Those that made it, made it. A few of them didn't, but most of them did. It was just awesome to see how they could swim across the lake; I would be too scared to stand too close to the water," she says.

Metro Tours passengers also will explore the John Freeman Walls Historic Site in Ontario.

Hellams of New Jersey, who went on the trip last year, recalls the John Freeman Walls Historic Walkway.

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"Members of the tour group walked through structures, woods and over water to experience a real life dramatization of routes taken by escaping slaves," she says. "In the background, the group could hear the sounds of the approaching bounty hunters and their dogs."

The trip also includes a viewing of The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, a one-woman show in Detroit. The play explores the life of Tubman, who never lost a slave during her 19 excursions.

Another historical site on the tour is Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site in Ontario, which rests on Dawn Settlement, more than 200 acres that Josiah Henson, a free slave, and other abolitionists bought to give runaways a place of refuge and former slaves a new life.

Henson's house, which stands on the original property today, is restored and furnished with period artifacts. The Josiah Henson house shows visitors what the architecture of early black settlements in Canada was like.

The site also includes the Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre, which contains the Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery, a collection of 19th-century artifacts and rare material from the abolitionist era. The gallery examines the history of slavery beginning with voyages from Africa to enslavement in the Southern states and, then finally, the flight to freedom in Canada. The center includes the North Star Theatre, which shows a 25-minute presentation on Henson's life.

The Metro Tours experience put life in perspective for Hellams.

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"I am truly blessed and thankful for the freedoms and opportunities [that] living in the United States of America affords me and my family," she says.

"Specifically, the freedoms of speech, of religion, of education, being able to attend school and learn how to read and to write, attending institutions of higher learning, skills and doors closed to my ancestors," Hellams says.

While in Detroit, the tour also stops at Motown's Historical Museum, which preserves the history of Motown Records.

This guided tour, which leaves Capitol Heights, costs between $389 and $1,096, depending on hotel accommodations and the number of people in a group traveling together.

For information about the bus tour, call Walter M. Carter at 301-736-1288 or Iona Williams at 410-655-5526, or go to metrotours.net.

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unisun@baltsun.com

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