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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Conner Prairie’s "Follow the North Star" simulates escape from slavery

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I vividly recall being sold into slavery in Fishers. After sneaking a peek at one “master”, I was forced to the ground for “being uppity.” Another time, I was informed I’d be sold in a lot with several others, since I was not worth much as an “old, worn-out” breeder.

Believe it or not, the verbal disrespect and domination is all part of an award-winning interactive history simulation at Conner Prairie, “Follow the North Star” offered Nov. 7-8, 13-15, 20-22 and also on weekend dates in April 2015.

Although it was never my intention to become a North Star “frequent flier”, I’ve now repeatedly accepted the invitation to identify with the plight of a runaway slave.

However, I, like all the other participants, had the power to “turn invisible” and end the simulation experience at any time, just by displaying a strip of cloth that would alert Conner Prairie staff that I wished to watch, but not directly participate.

Although no one is whipped or branded on Conner Prairie, let me testify that running through the Hoosier night from your “masters” to a cacophony of (recorded) gunshots and barking dogs will make your heart rate accelerate.

The 90-minute program allows participants to identify with the lot of a fugitive slave in the year 1836 who traveling through Indiana in search of freedom.

After viewing a short film and receiving an orientation, participants take a short trip to the wooded acreage where the intense program begins. They learn they are slaves who have been brought to the Indiana state line by their cruel owner, who decides to unload them at an auction in the woods.

This is their chance to escape to freedom, but on the trip, they will have to navigate several encounters with different Hoosier residents, each with his or her own agenda.

Conner Prairie President and CEO Ellen Rosenthal has explained that the intent of the program is to immerse participants in a hands-on experience for lasting learning more intense than that obtained from reading a textbook or watching a film.

At the end of the program, you learn your fate: freedom, accidental death, or capture and a return to slavery. Nothing is sugarcoated. Finally, a debriefing session allows you to share your feelings, ask questions and learn more about Indiana’s role in the Underground Railroad.

My recommendation: this program has garnered national attention, highlights a neglected dimension of history, and is right here in the metro area. Why miss it? If you go, make sure you wear comfortable shoes and dress for the temperature.

You’ll be moving around Connor Prairie at night, on uneven terrain. The program, which is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, began in 1998. Approximately 30,000 guests, among them 17,000 students ages 12 and up, have participated in just the last five years. The program has earned national awards from the American Association of Museums and American Association for State and Local History. For tickets and availability for “Follow the North Star”, call (317) 776-6000 or visit ConnerPrairie.org

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