Words and Photos By Kate Friesen
Resident Assistant Northwest Quad
Students spent an evening learning about the Underground Railroad at University Housing’s Sweet Chariot during an immersive, interactive tour on Feb. 20.
Student guides, or “conductors,” dressed in period attire and led participants along a tour designed to educate about the experience of enslaved people fleeing north to freedom before the end of the Civil War.
Conductors met participants at the Multicultural Center and Brough Dining Hall and walked them to the event in the Gregson Hall basement.
Along the way, conductors asked questions and shared facts about the Underground Railroad.
Follow the Drinking Gourd
Once groups arrived at the basement, they received a card narrative of an enslaved person, allowing each student to gain an individualized perspective of slavery. The students walked through a series of rooms that brought the Underground Railroad to light.
The first room contained artifacts highlighting real stories of people who were involved in the Underground Railroad.
Books and artifacts from the time were placed around the room and participants were invited to experience and interact with them.
Glow-in-the-dark-stars lined the ceiling in a pattern of a “drinking gourd,” and a small bag was set nearby. A note asked what they would take if they had to leave immediately and could only fill this one bag.
The next room had eight enlarged quilt squares hung on the wall. During the Underground Railroad era, specific quilt squares contained special meanings and were used as a form of communication to guide people to safety.
Participants were given cards with names and descriptions of the quilt pieces’ meaning, and they attempted to match the square with the correct name and description.
The quilt squares were hand-made specifically for the program by Reid Hall resident assistant, Aurora Jordan. Jordan and Grace Crifasi, a coordinator for Residence Education, found Civil War-era printed fabric that captures the details and aesthetic of the actual quilts that would have been used.
“It was a really rewarding experience to get to work on [the quit squares] with my mom who knew so much more than I did and who taught me everything I know now,” Jordan said.
The final room allowed participants to engage in discussion about what they had seen and learned in the previous two rooms.
The discussion was led by Valandra, African American Studies program director, and Adrian Smith, director of mentoring and leadership at the Center for Multicultural and Diversity Education.
“To have an immersion experience, even as brief as it might be, creates a much more impactful opportunity for students to really process and to think about and to reflect on what [the Underground Railroad] really was,” Smith said.
The single word, “surprise,” heard from the majority of students in their discussion as they reflected on their learning experience. “I learned things I didn’t know I needed to know” one of the student participants, Tyler Nixon, explained. The discussion came to an end as students were left with the rhetorical questions, “Now what? How will you continue to learn and how will you use the knowledge gained?”
Sweet Chariot is a diversity education program within University Housing’s @Home series. The @Home series consists of several signature events during the 2017-2018 academic year that focus on promoting academic success, personal development and diversity education.