The University Record, February 5, 2001

U, community collaboration leads to play, exhibition on Underground Railroad

By Dan Krauth, News and Information Services,
and Nancy L. Kuharevicz

A scene from Along the Tracks. Photo courtesy Wild Swan Theater
U-M faculty and students have teamed with a community theater group, local historians and professional designers to uncover and tell the history of the Underground Railroad in Washtenaw County. The story is in the form of a play, an accompanying study guide for students in grades 3–8 and a portable exhibition.

Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater is presenting Along the Tracks, written by U-M alumus Jeff Chastang, Feb. 12–18 at Towsley Theater, Morris Lawrence Building, Washtenaw Community College (WCC), and Feb. 20–23 at Wayne State University’s Community Arts Auditorium.

The play follows three escaped slave children who are trying to reach their parents in Canada, said Hilary Cohen, Wild Swan’s co-artistic director. It begins as the youths have reached the outskirts of Ann Arbor and are being hidden in a cellar on a white family’s farm. They have been guided to this stop on the Underground Railroad by a character based on George McCoy, an African American “conductor” from Ypsilanti who helped many slaves escape through Michigan to Canada.

Debuting in conjunction with Along the Tracks is “Midnight Journey,” an exhibition of historical materials about the Underground Railroad in Washtenaw County that was researched and developed by the U-M Arts of Citizenship (AoC) Program and the African American Cultural and Historical Museum (AACHM) of Washtenaw County. It will be displayed in the lobby of the Morris Lawrence Building during the play’s run at WCC.

The U-M program has been collaborating with AACHM for the past two years to research and create programs about the history of the Underground Railroad in the local area, said David Scobey, AoC director.

Meanwhile, Wild Swan Theater of Ann Arbor was commissioning a play about the Underground Railroad that would be geared toward youngsters.

In spring 2000, Wild Swan, AoC and AACHM agreed to present an exhibition and the play jointly, Scobey said.

The hands-on “Midnight Journey” exhibition allows visitors to touch tobacco and cotton plants and lift an iron kettle to get an idea of the work many slaves did, said Carol Mull, coordinator of AoC’s Underground Railroad Project. The exhibition also includes maps, period photographs and accounts of what life was like for fugitive slaves.

AoC students helped do research on “Midnight Journey.” Undergraduates Qiana Holmes and Justin Miller provided quotes, photographs and text. The team also included Willie Edwards and Shirley Vaughn from AACHM, art student Trevor Hoey and Matthew Countryman, assistant professor of history and of American studies. Joyce Meier, lecturer II in English language and literature, served as faculty supervisor for the research team. Lynne Friman of Envisions Design Ltd. designed the exhibition in consultation with Susan McCabe and Mary Seelhorst of Column 8 Creative Museum Solutions. It is being produced by W.A.P. John of Grafaktri Inc.

“We have designed it to be displayable in schools, libraries and community settings even without the play,” Scobey said.

Study guides for Along the Tracks were developed by undergraduates Ranita Dailey and Keisha Brooks in an English class taught by Meier. They include background on the play and playwright; information on the Underground Railroad, especially from a local perspective; and interactive games, activities and puzzles, Meier said.

The students attended meetings of the AoC-AACHM Underground Railroad research team, which has examined census data from the mid-1800s, reviewed newspapers from the period and studied materials in area historical societies. Dailey and Brooks also interviewed the playwright, did outside research on slavery and the Underground Railroad, and studied interactive children’s games to model the guides they created, Meier said.

Students working within the School of Information’s Cultural Heritage Initiative for Community Outreach (CHICO) program are creating an interactive Web site to supplement youngsters’ experience of the play.

The AoC’s Underground Railroad Project also is developing a Web-searchable database of local Underground Railroad history, including a virtual tour of Washtenaw County sites; recording oral histories of descendants of slaves and conductors; connecting local research to state and national groups; and organizing a heritage bus tour of Underground Railroad sites in Washtenaw County based on the group’s research.

“We encourage people to share with us their family stories, diaries or letters that will help us learn the history of the Underground Railroad in this area,” Mull said. The Underground Railroad Project also is seeking volunteers to serve as docents for the play and exhibition in Ann Arbor.

Along the Tracks will be presented at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Feb. 12–15; 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16; and at 2 p.m. Feb. 17–18 at WCC. It will be performed at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Feb. 20–23 at Wayne State. Tickets are $6 for children and $8 for adults. They are available at the Michigan Union ticket office and all TicketMaster outlets or by calling (734) 763-8587. Group tickets may be arranged by calling Wild Swan, (734) 995-0530.