Before You Go
Conner Prairie in Fishers, Ind., 1-800-966-1836, www.connerprairie.org;
The Lovejoy Homestead, (815) 879-9151, www.lovejoyhomestead.com. For additional information about Illinois attractions, visit their Web site at www.enjoyillinois.com, or call 1-800-2CONNECT (800-226-6632)
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Old Courthouse, Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward Expansion), (314) 655-1700, www.nps.gov/jeff. For additional information about St. Louis, visit www.explorestlouis.com, or call 1-800-916-0040
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, (785) 354-4273. Check the National Park Service Web site for current information regarding the official opening of the historic site, www.nps.gov/brvb.

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Sacrifices for freedom

Published: Jan/Feb 2003
By Sally M. Snell

“Follow the North Star,” an interactive simulation of the Underground Railroad experience (above), is offered by Conner Prairie in April and November./ Conner Prairie photo
The Old Courthouse in St. Louis (below)/ St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission photo
A renewed patriotism runs through America like a mighty river. Words like united, proud and freedom are tossed around fairly freely, perhaps without much thought about the personal sacrifices that paid for these important ideals.

One gripping illustration of those sacrifices for freedom comes every February: Black History Month. Several Midwestern sites tell inspiring stories of black Americans who fought to free themselves from slavery.

Flight to freedom

“It became obvious that this was one of the best stories of the struggle [for freedom] that we could find anywhere in American History,” said Doug Heiwig, co-author of the “Follow the North Star” program, an interactive simulation of the Underground Railroad experience, at Indiana’s Conner Prairie. Finding freedom was sometimes “just effort and pure blind luck,” said Heiwig because of the distances they had to cover, because they traveled by night and hid during the day, because most attempted to escape during the fall when weather worked against them, and because they could not know whom to trust. “Follow the North Star” participants live this period in history, if only for an evening. This historical experience uses Conner Prairie as a setting to dramatize the Underground Railroad story through a series of characterizations created by the living history museum's interpretive staff. Dates for 2003 are April 11–12, 18–19 and 25–26 and Nov. 7–8, 14–15, and 21–22. Reservations are required and participants must be 12 years old or older.

“Indiana as a free state wasn't a haven for escaped slaves and wasn't as romantic as movies and television, and even some history books, make it out to be,” said John Elder, interpretive specialist for historic agriculture at Conner Prairie. “You're looking at the common everyday man or woman doing what they believed was the moral and legal obligation, which was to turn them in if they were found. An escaped slave wasn't going to know necessarily who's helping and who's not.”

“People need to understand it wasn't the Quakers and the Methodists (helping runaway slaves) as much as it was African Americans helping African Americans,” said Heiwig.

Elder said participants quickly suspend disbelief and take on the role of an escaped slave.

“Typically it's within 30 seconds after a man has just fired a gun and is screaming in your face to get your eyes down,” said Elder. Learning about the Underground Railroad through experience gives participants an understanding at an emotional level that cannot be duplicated by reading text.

Many people mistakenly believe that the Underground Railroad happened only during a short period preceding the Civil War, but it was going on for quite some time, said Heiwig. “This desire for freedom was not something that just happened.”

The Lovejoy Homestead in Princeton is one of Illinois’ most important landmarks connected to the Underground Railroad. Owen Lovejoy moved to Princeton in 1838 where he was a preacher and vocal abolitionist. He served in the State Legislature and five terms in the United States House of Representatives.

The homestead interprets the Civil War era. Visitors can see the second floor, which was where runaway slaves were hidden until they could continue their journey north. The Lovejoy Homestead is open May–September.

Fighting for freedom

Dred Scott was born into slavery in 1799. He later relocated from Virginia to Missouri when his owner, Peter Blow, moved to St. Louis. Scott later was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks, just south of the city. He accompanied the doctor to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited.

In 1846, Scott and his wife, Harriet, filed suit against the doctor's wife, Irene Emerson, for their freedom. The Scotts argued that living in a free territory for nine years had made Dred Scott free, even after he had returned to a slave state.

Eleven years of frustrating litigation, beginning with the first two trials in St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, followed. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Scott could not sue because he was not a citizen of the United States.

The Old Courthouse in St. Louis is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Visitors in 2003 will see a special exhibit: “Dred Scott, Slavery and the Struggle to be Free,” which tells the story of Scott and slavery in antebellum Missouri through photographs and period newspapers.

The anniversary of the 1857 Supreme Court decision will be commemorated on March 8. Historic portrayals, mock trials and ranger-led programs will be offered. Call the Old Courthouse a few days ahead to ensure a trial will be held.

Education gives freedom wings

Well after the Civil War, blacks continued their struggle for equality and freedom. In 1896, the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision made it legal to create “white only” and “colored only” sections of trains, restaurants, theaters and schools. But what is equal? Under that definition, black children were forced to attend school far from their home, often without public transportation, in substandard buildings with few resources.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that separation in schools was harmful to children and unconstitutional. The decision is considered a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka is slated to open to the public in the summer of 2003. The museum is designed to “take you out of your comfort zone and put you into what it was like to go to school as a white person and as a person of color during that era,” said LaTonya N. Miller, public affairs specialist for the historic site. In the meantime, visitors can view an orientation film at a temporary visitor center nearby. Special events are planned in 2004 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the court's decision. The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is open Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–4 p.m., closed on all federal holidays.

Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.


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