“Heads down! Eyes down!” came the command, not from a drill sergeant at boot camp, but from a freed slave warning us how to behave in front of less-than-benevolent masters and slave traders on the harrowing “Road to Freedom.”
A group of 20 adults and children assumed the roles of runaway slaves in pre-Civil War Ohio, traversing the woods at Lorain County Metro Parks French Creek Reservation last weekend as part of their popular “Road to Freedom” program.
The Metro Parks developed the program a few years back as a way to highlight and honor their acquisition of the Burrell House and property on East River Road in Sheffield Village. It was left to the park system in 2001 in the will of the last direct relative of Jabez Burrell, who built the house in 1820.
Burrell’s two sons, Robbins and Jabez L., were abolitionists who became involved in the famed Underground Railroad. The Burrell House served as a station, or safe house, for slaves attempting to escape to Canada, where there was no slavery. For the slaves seeking freedom, the code word for Canada was “Heaven.”
We were a long way from “Heaven,” however, as a whip-wielding overseer yelled, humiliated and threatened us in front of a trader anxious to “buy us cheap” to work the cotton fields. Fellow “slaves” were ordered onto a platform for inspection – yes, they actually peered into a mouth to check out teeth and made someone touch his toes to prove he would be a good picker. I noticed a mom in the crowd reach out to touch her young son’s arm when the overseer talked about the value – or, perhaps, lack thereof – of children. It was instinctive on her part, and very touching to see. How many moms did the same thing as families were torn apart during those despicable times in American history?
We met friends and literally ran from foes as we trekked through the woods. When we finally arrived at the Burrell Home, we were escorted inside the historic home. I was struck by the old furniture and household items that belonged to the Burrell estate. As slave hunters closed in, we were hurried into the basement of an outbuilding. The doors were closed and, while it was only a few minutes before the boat captain arrived to take us across Lake Erie, the otherwise chatty group fell silent in that darkness.
We were then led upstairs and asked to stand on an “x” somewhere in the room. As the color of our “x” was called out, we learned our fate. Some runaways returned voluntarily to their plantation masters. Many others were captured and returned. Most of them were dead within 18 months. Others died or were killed on the journey. A few decided to remain in the area, and only one made it to “Heaven” in Canada. Those are pretty awful odds. We were told a group as large as ours would never have escaped successfully. Runaways traveled in small groups, generally of two or three. Our one-hour journey would have taken four to six weeks from the border of Kentucky near Cincinnati to the shores of Lake Erie.
The bus ride back to our starting point was much more relaxing than the trek through the woods filled with both friends and foes. I sat next to Frank and Edie Dore from North Ridgeville. Frank called the experience “spectacular,” adding that “you could feel like you were there.” He felt a “sense of dread” that was “real and palpable.” His wife agreed, calling the experience “humbling.” She added, “For that hour, our freedom was gone.”
The Lorain County Metro Parks, specifically the staff at French Creek, has done an exceptional job in creating an experience that, I believe, accurately portrays our history and the terror experienced by those runaway slaves who just wanted to live life as a free people. We are fortunate to have right here in our neighborhood these historic homes – there is another on Detroit Road in Sheffield Village – to remind us of how ordinary people do extraordinary things on behalf of humanity. Kudos to all those involved with writing, acting, arranging and making Road to Freedom memorable.
This experience reminded me of the saying “walk a mile in my shoes.” Walking in the footsteps of runaway slaves who were being hunted down by dogs and brutal bounty men drives home for me how lucky we are to be free people. It also reminds me of our responsibility to stand up for those who are not free and to help them as they make their way to their version of “Heaven.” I fear if we turn our backs, as some did as we “slaves” traversed the park, no one will have our back when we need help.