Sunday, August 5, 2007

Museum Monday: Live It Bethel, Underground Railroad Experience

Live It Bethel

A Future Museum

Lancaster is best known for the county of vast Amish farms and businesses, but few know that the City of Lancaster not only served briefly as one of the capitals of the United States, but as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Buses inch their way through the narrow streets of the Churchtowne neighborhood where groups learn about the Underground Railroad. It is called “Living The Experience" and is a spiritual interactive Underground Railroad reenactment presented by Bethel Harambee Historical Services.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was also one of the stops on the
ound Railroad and Phoebe Bailey (her brother, Edward M. Bailey, is the Pastor) provides a program that presents the stories behind the Railroad and explores ways for the freedom-seekers to find the next ‘station’ and ‘conductor’.

Groups are led into the modest, active,church, and seated in the pews. Phoebe (as Miss Olivia) enter singing one of the coded spirituals use to direct runaway slaves. Others follow.

Hush! Hush!

Somebody’s calling my name!

You had better hush, hush, hush
Somebody's calling my name
Somebody's c
alling my name
Oh my Lord, oh my Lord what shall I do?

What shall I do?

Thus begins a hour of stories and songs which includes a reenactment of the enslaved being loaded into the ships and enduring the sea voyage, tools of enslavement, instruments of punishment, proper behavior, auction, flight, and being hunted by the slave catchers replete with the sound of dogs in the background. It is totally interactive with both students and adults expected to take part. There is even a portion of ‘reaffirmation’, which elicits deep discussion of self esteem issues after the experience.

On the eastern wall (left hand side) of the church is a special window that depicts the southern lily and the Northern rose as well as symbols of the Underground Railroad. In 2002, It was used in a Jeopardy visual clue.

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God's gonna trouble the water.

Well, who are these children all dressed in red?
God's a-gonna trouble the water
Must be the children that Moses led
God's a-gonna trouble the water.


Who's that young girl dressed in white
Wade in the Water
Must be the Children of Israelites
God's gonna trouble the Water.


Jordan's water is chilly and cold.
God's gonna trouble the water.
It chills the body, but not the soul.
God's gonna trouble the water.


If you get there before I do.
God's gonna trouble the water.
Tell all of my friends I'm coming too.
God's gonna trouble the water.


The effect of this program on the students and adults is profound and all of my teachers have asked that this be included in each of their subsequent East Coast programs. I normally pair it with Philadelphia or Gettysburg.

While this is presented in a proper, historical Christian context, Ms. Bailey can tailor it to public schools with more emphasis on enslavement, but still retaining the spiritual value.

Outside of the church is a small cemetery with graves reflecting free and freed African Americans and the Colored Troops; itis currently being documented, preserved, and restored.

After the experience we are led up to their parish house, a former school, and served an historically accurate, (and yummy) fried chicken fellowship lunch. (Now my family is from rural Virginia and I have traveled quite a bit around this country, but theirs is the best fried chicken I have ever had!) There is also an opportunity to purchase books and African-American handmade crafts and clothing.

One of the goals of Bethel AME is to build a multi-million dollar learning center to include an Underground Railroad wax and interactive museum, gift shop, and theater. They proudly display the architectural plans on the bottom floor of their parish house.

One of the first groups I brought to the Live It Bethel Harrambee Experience was my Lutheran school from Anchorage. It is traditional for them to display their Alaska flag somewhere during the trip. The Principal thought it would be appropriate to display it on the steps of the parish house. After all, it depicts the Big Dipper with the North Star showing the way to freedom. It’s also known as the Drinking Gourd.

Even I had to follow the North Star to find them!

It's been exciting to watch them grow and I'm looking forward to the time that they do have a museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad. But until then, I' m quite satisfied with this modest, but heartfelt program.

Student tours are by appointment but there are public tours during weekends and some holidays.

Bethel AME

Living the Underground Railroad
Lancaster Quest for Freedom Guide

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