Knowing where you come from helps you know where you are going.
Those words rang true for the 40 students from St. Augustine High School who recently traveled the “Underground Railroad” path to freedom across the U.S. to Canada and back.
Father Tony Ricard, campus minister and teacher, proposed to students at the black Catholic school to expand their annual March for Life trip to Washington, D.C., to also include stops on the Underground Railroad. By doing that, he said, students could understand how the freedoms they have today were earned.
“We wanted to do a real ‘March for Life,’ focusing on slavery, reaching their way to freedom,” said senior Brandon Grace, who is in Father Ricard’s fine arts class.
The trip was themed “Before I Be a Slave, I’ll Be Buried in My Grave.” Accompanied by four chaperons – Father Ricard, principal Sean Goodwin, Chris Quest and Kendeall Crawford – students crossed 14 northern states to the “promised land” of Canada, out of reach of slave hunters.
Students offered travel ideas
Students gave input on stopping points, which included historic sights of the railroad and civil rights. The first stop was the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Then they journeyed with slave Eliza Harris, who escaped from Kentucky and stopped at the Jimmy and Rachel Silliven Pioneer home in Penn Township, Indiana; saw the House of Four Pillars in Maumee, Ohio, an early black settlement; and stopped at the Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad in Detroit, Michigan.
They also crossed through a tunnel into Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to visit Sandwich First Baptist Church and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden, Ontario. They went on to Salem Chapel of the British Methodist Church in St. Catherines, Ontario, where Tubman worshipped.
“We went down under the church to where slaves hid underground,” said junior Emonte Wilson. At the church, the students sang spiritual songs learned on the bus.
They discovered how slaves sang songs as code for things such as the arrival of slave hunters. The spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was a code song for Harriet Tubman’s arrival. She was the new Moses to black people.
“We were connecting to our ancestors at that moment by singing the songs of old,” Father Ricard said.
On the way home, the group stopped in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, at the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Xavier University of Louisiana; the Johnson House historic site in Philadelphia; and the Josephite home in Baltimore, Maryland (founders of St. Augustine High School).
They toured historic sites in Washington, D.C., such as the Lincoln Memorial and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (where there was a challenge for the first student to find a photo of the 1965 St. Aug. basketball team and they sang more spirituals). They also prayed on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court steps and at Arlington National Cemetery.
Conduct garnered selection
Students were invited to take the trip based solely on their character observed by religion teachers, Father Ricard said. He stressed that his fine arts course and what was learned on the trip were meant to show African-American students that they descend from a strong people.
“When we talk about slavery, we should be proud because we come from those who survived,” Father Ricard said.
The message resonated.
“It felt good to learn about our past and know what our ancestors went through and where we are today,” Wilson said. “We are not taking beatings or picking cotton. We are able to do what we want to do with our lives.”
As a result of students wanting to learn more about black historical leaders from the trip, a black theology class may be established at St. Augustine High in the fall, as well as a dual enrollment class in black theology at Xavier University.
The journey encouraged students to take their education and opportunities seriously, since their ancestors were denied those chances.
“It made me closer to my brothers and gave me a rich history of what my ancestors went through,” sophomore Kolby Perrilloux said. “We are strong people because they fought through all the beatings and the tough times of slavery, and I am still here today.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.