The Underground Railroad as a Backdrop for Learning about Nature
Each year at Pilcher Park Nature Center we have some 4800 students come to the park for our Underground Railroad Field Trip. This was designed to teach Black History and Nature at the same time. Our Nature Center is turned into several different stations on the Underground Railroad. The busses full of students are greeted by a conductor who hops on the bus to ride with them to the location in the park that they are to get off. Once off the bus they are slaves. They have to hide from Bounty Hunters and evade the barking dogs to make their way to freedom in Canada.
We have two versions of the field trip. One is two hours and one is three hours. The minimum number of students is 50 and the max is 85 per day. The slaves have to find their way to freedom and they will not all make it. While still on the bus the children are given pieces of paper with actual slave names on them. Their teachers are given a list of names and what the fate of each slave was. When they return to school, students get to look at the list to see if they made it to safety or not. When they get off the bus with their conductor they have to make their way to a barn in the woods. Inside the first barn the slaves learn about the jobs that slaves might do like picking cotton or maybe they are house slaves and have to wash clothes all day. They learn the codes from old spirituals like Wade in the Water ( sung to tell the slaves to get into the water to keep the bloodhounds from finding them by their scent on the banks). We recently learned is not true when the police came to the Nature Center to meet our Little Sprouts from our Nature Based Early Learning Center. The dog handlers say that the dogs can still pick up the scent, it is just dispersed more in the water. After learning these things the students (slaves) are broken into groups of 10-15 and are taken to the next stop on to the Underground Railroad.
They go to a cellar and learn about Box Brown and how he shipped himself north to freedom. They get to climb in a replica of the box and are shown a secret wall and are then allowed to try hiding in there.
From there they go to the school. In the school house they learn about Astronomy (Follow the Drinking Gourd) and Science (how moss grows on the north side of the tree) and survival.
In the parlor they learn about medicines they might have used in the days preceding the civil war. Children dress in costumes to try to hide their black skin and they often dress as the opposite sex.
After the parlor they head to the last barn. In the last barn they learn about the quilt squares and what the quilts were supposed to mean. The Flying Geese pattern told slaves to follow the migrating gees north toward Canada and to freedom. The Drunkard’s Path was a clear warning for the slaves to move in a staggering fashion to elude any bounty hunters. There is a bit of controversy surrounding the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad and there is no proof that Quilts were actually used, but the quilt theory has made it’s way into the collective folklore surrounding the Underground Railroad so we use it. The children are given a quilt square to paint and take home. Sometimes the teachers will put them together and make an actual quilt for the class.
We think that this unique Field Trip is a great way for children to have empathy for what the slaves might have endured and a feeling of gratitude for living in this time and place. I personally came up with this idea because it is one time in our history when blacks and whites worked together for the common good