By Sharon Sheridan
Riding crop in hand, James Griffin — aka Louisiana plantation owner John Hampden Randolph — stood at the top of the chancel steps and addressed 160 people crowded into the center aisle of St. James Episcopal Church in Upper Montclair, N.J.
“You are lucky to be here,” he said. “I can afford proper cabins and meals for my slaves. … I have purchased you at great expense because the world wants cotton, and we here in Louisiana grow some of the best there is. … The Bible says that you are mine to own and to have dominion over. … I expect you to work hard for the money I have paid.”
With that, he dismissed his new “property” to confinement in the church’s bell tower. Moments later, the church’s rector opened the church doors, admonishing the escapees spilling onto the front lawn to “look for your conductor, and go!” Their journey on the Underground Railroad had begun.
On Feb. 5, the first Sunday of Black History Month, a racially diverse gathering of congregants and visitors of all ages participated in a re-enactment of the secret route that escaped American slaves once followed north to freedom. Following clues and guided by railroad “conductors,” groups of participants wound through the church campus, stopping at “safe houses” to meet historical figures including escaped slave and legendary conductor Harriet Tubman, escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and abolitionist Quakers Abigail Goodwin of Salem, N.J., Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Angelina’s husband Theodore Weld.
Griffin and several others patrolled the halls, returning recaptured “slaves” back to the bell-tower “holding cell,” from whence they quickly escaped again.
Ultimately, all participants reached freedom in “Canada,” the church’s nave. The program concluded with an opportunity for them to reflect on the experience, followed by everyone singing “We Shall Overcome,” hand in hand.
Participants included 20 minority teens from Newark’s Christ the King Preparatory School for economically disadvantaged students. At one point, Griffin insisted on entering the home of Frederick Douglass, portrayed by Wendell Bristol, and led away a recaptured “slave.”
“That’s the principal!” said one student. “No school on Monday!”
Despite such lighter moments, the re-enactment was not a game, but a sober reminder of a dark piece of American history and what happens when we make people “the other,” said the Rev. C. Melissa Hall, St. James rector.
“In slavery, we made ‘the other’ of an entire race of God’s people,” she said in a sermon in the worship service preceding the re-enactment. “‘Othering’ is part of our human behavior, certainly not the best part. It is in the act of ‘othering’ when I no longer see you as a person, when your face and personhood disappear, when you are not human to me, but rather an object. Once I ‘other’ you, objectify you, I can do anything to you, and it gives me license to hate anyone I wish.”
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