By Rory O’Sullivan, Staff Writer
With close to 100 educators, parents and administrators scheduled to begin the journey to Ohio, the Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Field Study Tour kicks off again July 5th through July 12th with two trips scheduled to accommodate the large group of educators. The second trip is scheduled to depart July 19th through July 26th. The trip is designed to give participants the experiences of an enslaved person seeking freedom and the humanity of others who risked everything to help them achieve that freedom. The trip goes through the central lesser known route through Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Upstate New York, and Western Ontario, Canada.
Educators and community leaders will learn firsthand the steps that enslaved Americans traveled to gain their freedom along the Underground Railroad. Started in 1997 by former newspaper publisher Assemblymember Cheryl Brown, The Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Field Study Tour has touched hundreds of lives throughout the Riverside and San Bernardino area.
“It was emotional. There were plenty of times we choked up and we cried,” said Niki Chambers who participated in last year’s trip. “It’s all very moving.”
Chambers said she enjoyed following in the same footsteps as Harriet Tubman, and sitting in the same pews of the church she attended in St. Catherine’s Ontario, Canada.
Chambers was so inspired she is coordinating the trip this year and has become directly involved in her two sons educational outcomes serving on the San Bernardino City District African-American Advisory Council. She also reached out to other parents, mentoring them to become more involved in their own children’s education and the structural issues affecting students.
“They can be engaged as well,” said Chambers.
One of the parents she is mentoring is even going on the trip this year.
Roxanne Williams, an educator, was also on that trip last year.
She remembers walking around Ohio’s Oberlin College campus, the first college in America to adopt a policy admitting Blacks in 1835. She remembers walking the fields in Kentucky where generations before her worked the land. She remembers going to Rochester, New York where Frederick Douglass’s North Star Newspaper was printed, giving hope to slaves still trapped in slavery.
Williams said, “When you are in these locations where history happened, the trip definitely makes you more conscious of [not just Black history] America’s history.”
Williams said the time they spent in Detroit stood out most to her. There was the First Congregational Church’s living museum where actors in rags for clothes acted out real life scenarios from a hundred years ago and the slave ship at the Wright Museum of African-American History, where haunting wax dolls depict the pain and agony of Africans taken from their homeland and arriving on the shores of America.
“There was not one dry eye that day,” said Williams.
The trip lit a fire under Williams and she has decided to change her community by running for San Bernardino City’s 6th Ward in the November 3rd election.
“We have to strive to do better,” said Williams.
This was Brown’s plan all those years ago when she first thought of sharing her experience traveling along the Underground Railroad. To motivate her community to not only understand where they come from, but what they can achieve. Now an Assembly member representing San Bernardino, Brown sees her dream coming full circle.
She was first invited by the Greene County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Ohio to participate in its Underground Railroad Tour.
“It was a transformative experience. I was so inspired that I wrote passionately about it for ten weeks,” said Brown.
Brown said a short time thereafter, a teacher from the city of Fontana was featured in every major broadcast news station for teaching myths about slavery. Allegedly, she told her students that slavery was fun and that Blacks would still be in trees if they weren’t brought from Africa to America.
Brown saw the need to have educators and community leaders take the same trip so they could have a better understanding of what enslaved Africans underwent for freedom in this country.
“The educators who went on the tour had a life-changing experience,” states Brown. “When they came back and made their presentations to the board, the members were deeply touched by their testimonies.”
Brown also wanted to inspire the next generation. If their forefathers could escape through sweltering muggy South Carolina days and harsh Ohio winter nights to freedom; there was nothing their descendants couldn’t do.
“Number one, the premise that this is a post racial society is false. Racism is still pervasive in America. However, the knowledge that is shared throughout this trip is transformative. Once you smell, taste and see this history, you will never be the same. It brings a greater understanding of the sacrifices that people made to make America the greatest country in the world,” Brown concluded.
Teachers, students and community members at home can participate in the project through a virtual tour of the Underground Railroad on the Internet by following them at www.facebook.com/ pages/Footsteps-To-Freedom/187755004617186 and #FootstepsToFreedom2015 Twitter and Instagram.