The girl stares at the ground, the man looming beside her. Directly ahead is a path for escape. Others stand rigidly with eyes cast downward.
“They’re runaways, ain’t they? You don’t even have a concept of freedom, do you?” the man barks at her face. “You a slave, girl?”
She nods, a few others sniffle.
The 50 children, only one of whom is black, were experiencing the cruelties inflicted upon slaves who tried to escape north through the Underground Railroad.
“Slaves had to go through that every day and I only did it for an hour,” said 11-year-old Nicole Wallis, who was so frightened that she left the living history program halfway through.
The reenactment at the YMCA’s Camp Cosby, about 45 miles east of Birmingham, is one of several nationwide, but uniquely intense. Camp counselors attempt to give a realistic perspective about slavery to fourth- and fifth-grade students by dressing as slave traders, bounty hunters and abolitionist and sending students on a risky journey through the dense woods surrounding the camp.
A woman points them to a cabin, warning them to keep quiet or “they’ll shoot your heads off!” Nearby gunfire sends them running through a maze of trees and underbrush, before they encounter back-to-back obstacles.
“You’re property, and nothing more,” a bounty hunter hisses, pressing his club to a girl’s back. She whimpers a “Yes, sir,” and covers her face with her hands.
Once captured, they’re ordered to haul firewood into a pile, a task they complete obediently—until a farmer knocks it down in spite. Their enemies taunt them with threats of hangings and beatings.
Students are chaperoned by teachers and parent volunteers, who watch the children closely for their reactions. Only four of the Clay Elementary School students stepped out of the simulation.