Talk about history immersion … imagine you are a slave, running in the heavy woods and darkness trying to figure out if the next house you come to is a safe haven or a road back to slavery. Then you are caught. Yelled at. Intimidated. Berated. And someone yells “RUN!” And you do. Just hoping to find freedom.This experience is recreated through Follow the North Star, a program designed to immerse you into the life, conditions, struggles and dangers that fugitive slaves in 1836 experienced as they navigated their way through Indiana and sought northern freedom. I participated in the event years ago and can’t express to you the emotions that it stirred in me. To play the part of a runaway slave and truly see how they were treated and what they went through was an experience I will never forget.Here’s the scenario: Guests are slaves brought north by their owner, who decides to sell them at an illegal nighttime auction in the woods. Throughout their 90-minute ordeal through the historic grounds of Conner Prairie (on the northside of Indy), they capitalize on multiple opportunities to escape but must avoid slave traders and choose whether to trust sympathizers. During the experience, none of the horrors or atrocities of slavery are depicted and no vulgar language is used. But participants are forced out of their comfort zones for a realistic historical re-creation.
The program ends as guests encounter a visionary who shares their eventual fate – some are tortured, others captured, some die and a few find freedom. A debriefing session allows participants to share their feelings, ask questions and learn more about Indiana’s role in the Underground Railroad.
While Follow the North Star began in 1998 at Conner Prairie, in the last five years more than 30,000 guests have participated. The program has earned national awards from the American Association of Museums and American Association for State and Local History.