It’s one thing to help teens understand slavery by having them read about it in history class or visit the new African American Museum in DC. But if you really want a kid to understand the ugliness of slavery, take him or her to Indiana to “follow the north star.” The emotional, stirring experience at Conner Prairie is sure to leave lasting impression.

Follow the North Star at Conner Prairie.

Photo courtesy of Conner Prairie

Follow the North Star at Conner Prairie

Few things can make someone understand the horror of being a slave better than living it. Even if it’s just for a few hours. Even if you know the whole time that it’s just pretend. And even if you can toss a white flag at any time to end the terror.

Each November and April, Conner Prairie, a living history museum just northeast of Indianapolis, runs the “Follow the North Star” program. For 90 minutes, visitors become the slaves, treated as though they are property to be owned, sold, and abused at will.

This play-acting “slave sale” is the closest I ever want to come to understanding the realities of slavery. And I was one of the lucky three escaped slaves from our group of about 20 who managed to survive and “follow the North Star” to freedom in Canada.

Is It Too Much for Children?

Our children wanted to join us for the experience when we visited in April 2014, but their school schedules didn’t allow it. When it was over, both my husband and I said we were glad they weren’t there. It was tough enough for each of us to hear the other being berated–I was called a “cow” and my husband made to kneel in the dirt because he dared to look at one of the slave traders. I’m not sure I could have handled hearing someone talk to my kids that way. And my husband thinks he might have taken a swing at the guys, even though he knew they were just actors.

Conner Prairie runs school programs for teens. Those are during the day, which could make it slightly less nightmare-enducing. This is only for the most mature teens.

Follow the North Star program at Conner Prairie

Visitors play the slaves in this realistic play. Slave traders berate the “slaves” while others offer them advice on escaping by following the North Star to freedom in Canada. Photos courtesy of Conner Prairie

Realistic Experience

In an effort to make the experience as real as is reasonable, the Conner Prairie actors and staff follow a script. It calls for them to treat the paying guests as less than human. That’s just the way slave traders treated their charges in those dark days of American history.

Unlike the real slave traders they portray, the Conner Prairie actors never touch their charges. Regardless, “Follow the North Star” is not for the faint of heart.

According to the story line, the paying guests are all slaves who have been brought north by their owner. Once he discovers that Indiana is a free state, he quickly arranges for an illegal sale to sell his “property” — you. The slave traders plan to take their newly acquired slaves back south.

"Slave traders" get the "slaves" in line. Photo courtesy of Conner Prairie

“Slave traders” get the “slaves” in line. Photo courtesy of Conner Prairie

A Safety Valve

The 90-minute experience starts with a short movie that sets the stage for the evening. Each guest is given a white strip of cloth and told to tie that around his or her head if the experience gets too intense. Then you’re loaded onto a tram and driven to your fate as night starts to fall.

It was nearly dark by the time we got to the 1836 village and the brutal reality that we no longer had any control, freedom, or rights. We were lined up against a log cabin wall and told to keep our eyes on the ground while people hurled viscous insults. A few teens in the group started to giggle. They were immediately pulled out of the line and made to kneel facing the opposite wall.

It was disconcerting not to be the able to look up or around to see what was happening. We quickly mastered the ability to watch with our peripheral vision while appearing to keep our eyes on the ground. Families were divided up among the slave traders who invaded our personal space. They yelled rude personal questions—asking the women “how many calves have you dropped?”

Escaping the slave traders

follow the north star

“Slaves” attempting to escape their pursuers. Photo courtesy of Conner Prairie

The experience progresses through a series of vignettes in which we slaves were:

  • Ordered to do repetitive, meaningless tasks.
  • Given the opportunity to escape, only to hide in a barn and be yelled at by farmers who were more worried about whether they would be punished for hiding escaped slaves than helping us on our way.
  • Recaptured only to escape again.
  • Stumbling in the dark along the uneven terrain.
  • Finding our way to a Quaker family who does what it can to send us on our way to freedom.

How the Story Ends

The harrowing evening ends with a sobering recitation during which a costumed interpreter tells our group of about 20 how our story most likely ends:

  • Many were caught and sent back to Georgia.
  • One broke a leg in the dark and died alone in the woods.
  • One drowned trying to cross the river.
  • Only three make it to Canada and freedom.

Why Conner Prairie?

follow the north star

Photo courtesy of Conner Prairie

Indiana was a free state in the early 1800s. Fishers, Indiana, settled by abolitionists, was a hub on the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves make their way north.  The “Follow the North Star” program, which has been running since 1998, was developed as a natural extension of the living history museum at Conner Prairie. The park already had an 1836 village and costumes and characters trained in the history, work, and life of 1836 Indiana.

The staff researched the Underground Railroad of 1836 Indiana. Then they developed characters who would represent those roles. Actors play characters ranging from brutal slave traders to compassionate Quaker families.

Learning that Slavery Lives On

The harrowing evening ends in a debriefing session aimed at helping visitors process the experience and their reaction to it. The parents who brought teens on the night we visited admitted it was tough for them. They worried about how their children would react to the brutality. The African-Americans in our group were strangely quiet.

Lest visitors leave feeling grateful that America has gotten past its appalling history, Conner Prairie workers end the evening with a final thought about slavery today. They hand out a paper with a website to visit that asks us about our consumer habits and returns a tally of the number of slaves who work for us today.

For me, it’s 78.

More for Kids

Indianapolis has a really great children’s museum. And, while you’re in Indy, check out these 12 free things to do with kids in Indianapolis. To learn more about African American history in the United States, visit the newest Smithsonian museum, the African American Museum in DC.

Conner Prairie, a living history museum