Camp Joy and the Freedom Run: My Escape on the Underground Railroad

Camp Joy and the Freedom Run: My Escape on the Underground Railroad

When I was in the sixth grade, my mother signed a permission slip for me to attend Camp Joy in Clarksville, Ohio. I didn't know what Camp Joy was, where Clarksville is, or what I would be doing at this camp, but I knew it was something completely different than anything I had ever done. It would be my first time until band camp that I would be so far away from home for so long and under the supervision of adult strangers. Maybe I was a little naive, and maybe a little too curious, but it definitely did not end in any way that I had ever imagined, especially the part where I ran for my freedom in the pitch black of night as a slave with my fellow campers.

It was a right of passage, Camp Joy, and most of my friends were able to participate. You hear about some of the fun crafts, parties, and activities that you can do while you're there, but not one of them were as infamous as the Living History Program. I truly loved making hand dipped candles, learning about the men who brought ice to town way back in the day, and identifying tree leaves (no shade, really) but what I was more obsessed with was the fact that they were going to be largely prepubescent eight graders through an ordeal that grown folk should never have to repress until their later years.

Depending on when you go, you may end up as a Native American on the Trail of Tears on their way West, or you might find yourself being auctioned off as a black slave by barking auctioneers. And this isn't just a third person vantage where you're witnessing it happen to other actors, you're the slave, donned in whatever you came to the wilderness in by your cabin leader or teacher, and a special bandana that magically rips you back to present reality by pulling it down from your forehead to your neck.

I was adamant that I would not opt out of the experience because I am extremely proud to be black and I wanted to have every opportunity to connect with my ancestors, both Native American and African American, through the hardships and the beauty of their lives. I knew that it would affect me, but being a history buff even back then I thought I knew every twist and turn they were going to throw at us. I won't say I was traumatized, but it was eyeopening to say the very least.

Moreover, it made me more aware of my peers and the life forces around me and how negativity and turmoil affect us all differently. Upon being inspected and appraised by an auctioneer, the friend next to me immediately swiped down her bandana, threw her hands in the air and exclaimed, "Ok! I'm done! That's it!" and she was never seen again... until a few hours later when we returned to our bunks that night.

Another student I believe was asked a question and he couldn't give an answer quick enough. They had him swing a bag of rocks (presumably) over his shoulder and march around the re-created square and proclaim he was "Dumber than a box of rocks." We weren't allowed to look up from our feet, so I had to rely on my nosy ears. At first I couldn't believe that this was happening. But then after a while, I began to hear the hurt leave his voice and the defiance and self confidence take its place. We were some tough cookies to crack!


 Photo from  Camp Joy

Photo from Camp Joy

When it was my turn to be "sold" I tried to look as rigid and unnecessary as humanly possible. But of course I would pick the day to wear the only piece of jewelry I owned, a sterling silver thumb ring. "Eh! Look at that! This'n got a piece of gold on her." I tried to palm the ring so he might have became mistaken, but he waved a few of his slave owning friends to come gander at the prospect. It made me angry. What do you mean what I own is now yours? That's mine! (Although admittedly I can't be sure I didn't steal it myself from the mall at Claire's.)

So we're sorted and shipped, meaning we began to walk through the wilderness accompanied by our new owner and torchlight. Suddenly, a woman comes out of the woodwork and starts shouting at our escort. We're still not able to look up at this point, but we definitely heard and saw the thunder and lightning from the muzzle of a gun as someone got shot at pretty close range. We were stunned and couldn't believe that had just happened. The noise of the quarrel died with the fading gun blast into the trees, and we were ushered further out into the wilderness. Any and all giggles and snickers had stopped at that very moment. We were then corralled into a home, or a shack, I'm still not sure because it was so dark, and led through a passage underneath it.

There are three things that I don't like in life.

1. The Dark

2. Bugs

3. Having to following strangers into the darkest of strange places.

But, before we went any farther, we were told that he was leading us to freedom. I, for one, had no idea that all along this man was leading us to freedom. I thought we were being led to our new home on a plantation and were going to learn about the life of a slave. At that moment, I realized what was more important to experience than the life of a slave. It was the freedom and the overcoming of a slave and the triumph of reaching that precipice that I now was obsessed with. Although I could sense the doubt that we would escape without being caught, I think a lot of my comrades also felt just as up to the challenge during that moment. It was a really pivotal moment in the night.

Once we were through the tunnel, we came upon a safe house, the last stop of the evening, but for many reasons, it seemed like it was the longest few minutes of the night. We were invited into the home by its owner and we thought, this was it, we made it! But then came someone up the road. We had to make a mad dash upstairs, crouch in the corner and remain absolutely silent. Even the lightest foot fall would bend the floorboards of the wood-crafted home and give ourselves, and our escort away. We heard voices from beneath the floors talking intensely. I figured we were only a few wrong answers away from being handed back over to some folks who would definitely make sure we couldn't run away again, whatever it took. We could tell the master downstairs was sweeping the place and we started to really worry. There were a few nervous giggles and I tried my hardest not be super upset with them. I wanted my freedom!

Alas, the danger subsided and we were free people, in a manner of speaking. We got together, had some great discussion and conversations and returned to our bunks. We had one more day together at the camp, and it was truly amazing how one night really increased my capacity to be around people I didn't know well. I feel like we all went through it together and it's a bond that will never be broken, even if we never spoke together again in the halls at school.

I personally highly recommend allowing your youngster to participate in the camp and it's program. Even for a little city girl brat like me, they paid me more attention and respect than probably any other adult outside my close friends and family have ever shown me. They didn't let me get away with sitting everything out (without pushing me past my limit), and they certainly did a great community justice by organizing such a thoughtful and well executed re-enactment program. 

 Photo by  Martin Palla

Photo by Martin Palla

Here's what a few of my other friends though, ,reflecting on the experience now in their late twenties and with children of their own:

It was traumatic as hell to me! I was on the underground railroad....that being said though, I do think I would want my son to do it too.
It was a great way to show the realness of it.
I participated and went back as a counselor. I recommend it. I think it would benefit my future children.
I thought it was very traumatic to me but it made the stories we were told in history more real. I'd let me kid go through it.
It was realistic and they let you opt out if it is to much for you. I did trail of tears; they made me get on the ground and pretended to beat me with the butt of a rifle, it was a dark but very enlightening experience that I think everyone should go through. Its one of the most talked about experiences among the kids for years after we went, it would be unfair to deprive our children of that experience. Life is hard and this is a great introduction to that concept for kids.
They berated me, called me a boy (I was a tom boy) and made me cry. That wasn't even a fraction of what slaves went through, and reflecting on that definitely proves how powerful an experience like that can be.
I talk about it alot. It was a great learning experience!
I thought it was a great way to showcase the underground railroad and to the point we felt emotions about it. I still talk about it!
I personally loved that trip/experience! I think it's extremely important for our youth to be educated on our country's history and what a fun way to do it!
I loved it i wish all kids got to do it! It was very traumatic too and scary. Thankfully our group was one of the ones that made it to freedom and didn't get caught!
I thought it was a very good experience. Made me understand more about what people went through during those times.
I LOVED IT!! I've been showing my kid "heavyweights" and "Solute your shorts" so he gets pumped up for it when he gets bigger.

I was absolutely crestfallen when I arrived at Camp Joy, but it turned out to be one of the most me making moments of my life that I wouldn't trade for the world and would highly recommend this experience, or any like it to anyone. Whether you're a parent, teacher, youth group leader, it's definitely something worth looking into! Read more about the Living History Programs here.



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