Mud sucked at our shoes, the ground would surely devour our bare feet, rocks and twigs like endless rows of teeth. Shivering in the night’s chilly embrace, we hoped that our minds would be too focused on the journey at hand as we fled from a past that haunts our nation to this day.

No matter how good our imaginations, it is difficult to transport our 2007 mindsets to the life of 1836 eyes. Yet every fall and spring, Conner Prairie offers a special program called Follow the North Star, where the participants become slaves and escape along the Underground Railroad. Though I once compared the journey of discipleship to the journey of the Underground Railroad (part I and part II), getting a dose of the reality adds a new dimension to it.

From the first moments, you get the barest idea of what it was to undergo a process of dehumanization. Separated into bucks and breeders , we were trained to avert eyes as we couldn’t ever look a white person in the face. We were taught to never question, conditioned to never challenge, trained to be submissive, confused, always wrong. After only 15 minutes, no one, no matter their true color, looked up again. Now imagine that process ingrained over generations, that attitude of inferiority for some and superiority for others.

Behind us, we heard many footfalls closing in on us as we ran in the constant fear of never knowing who to trust. We never knew which attitude we would encounter. Maybe it was gentle ladies whose religious beliefs outweighed their desires for self-preservation. Maybe it would be an embittered southerner thrown out of work because of the influx of slaves taking away his job. Maybe it would be a Quaker family fighting to abolish slavery. Maybe it would be a “cattle rustler”, seeking to capture runaway slaves for profit. Maybe it would be free black folk, willing to take folks in and point them in the right direction. And you hoped that your fear wouldn’t outweigh your desire for freedom.

How effective the experience is depends on the group you’re with and how well you can entrench yourself in the role. With our 2007 gloves, hats, and shoes, it’s hard to fully put ourselves in the same situation. To imagine the system of conditioning to obedience, how families were torn apart. It can be intense, but it was only a taste of what the reality must have been like.