Minneapolis Star Tribune
Published: August 23, 1994
By Rosalind Bentley; Staff Writer
This is a really different kind of summer camp.
Day 1 you're a resident in an African village. Day 2 you're captured, sold at auction as a slave and
made to work fields in the hot afternoon sun. By nightfall, you're running through woods and bogs as you try to escape slave
traders on the Underground Railroad. Day 3 you're marching on City Hall in Marine on St. Croix in a civil rights protest.
And the program isn't even halfway over.
Since last Wednesday, 60 African-American high school students from the Twin Cities and their surrounding
suburbs have been participating in the W. Harry Davis Leadership Institute's Summer Leadership Initiative training program.
The goal is to get black kids interested in community service and group leadership through reenacting landmark experiences
in African-American history.
For a few days in rural Wisconsin and
Minnesota, the students got a tiny taste of the events that shaped their ancestors' lives and in many ways their own.
A village not so far away
There's a tiny African village smack in the middle of Interstate Park in Wisconsin.
In a grassy clearing
the size of a softball field, storytellers, herders, blacksmiths, fishermen and farmers wander about, taking care of the day's
business. Under a maple tree sits Patrice Cox, 16, her slender golden fingers tinged with indigo dye she's using to color
pieces of fabric.
For Patrice, who is biracial, this is a rare opportunity
to be in a group that's exclusively black. She's relishing it. It's not that she doesn't like being around white kids, it's
just that it's reaffirming to be surrounded by other brown faces.
mom is white and I love her, but I'm black," she says. "History about whites doesn't interest me because I'm not
white, that's not my culture."
Africa holds a certain fascination
for her. She has an uncle from Nigeria, who regularly cooks traditional meals for her family. Her goal is to travel to the
continent, "before I die." But for now, the makeshift African village on the southwestern edge of Wisconsin will
"At my school you have to worry about what white people
think," she begins. "We [blacks] can never win anything like [class] king or queen because there aren't enough of
us to vote to elect anybody, so we're left out. So it's nice to be in an environment like this."
This is the second year 15-year-old Damien Bass has participated in the program. This time, as
peer group leader, he wears the mantle of responsibility well, talking about his hopes for his fellow participants.
The middle passage
Patrice, Damien, Kai Andersen and Jabari Barner sit chained along the banks of a lake. They have been captured
by Ed Irwin of the W. Harry Davis Leadership Institute. Irwin is playing the part of the slave trader to the hilt, forcing
the students to shackle themselves in preparation for the long march across the park to a waiting paddle boat, which this
day poses as a slave ship.
Some of the students, like 17-year-old
Kai of Bloomington, are solemn, obviously trying very hard to imagine what it must have been like to be free one moment and
chattel the next. Others, like 14-year-old Jabari of St. Paul, are acting out their discomfort in many ways, favorite among
which is laughter.
Irwin finds it interesting that none of the students
has tried to escape bondage. But he is pleased that they're staying together. Now is not the time for intrepid displays of
rugged individualism, he says, not when your brothers and sisters could be punished for your act.
In groups of about
20 the kids are marched onto the boat.
They're told to keep their
heads down and not to look into the eyes of the white crew and plantation owners who are on board. The hold of the ship has
been cordoned into stalls with huge sheets of brown plastic. The floor is covered with hay.
The 60 tired, sweaty teenagers wedge themselves into cramped floor space and ready themselves for
the "voyage" from Africa to the Americas.
Above deck are
the plantation owners, who in another life are high school teachers and students in White Bear Lake.
As a part of their roles as masters, they're asked to inspect group after group of slaves for their
potential value on the auction block - a task neither the black nor white students appear comfortable with. Inspection involves
rolling up pants legs to make sure the shackles have not left running sores. Or opening the slaves' mouths to check their
This brings two young women with very different ancestry
to the common point of tears. Diana Dokos teaches American literature and has been working with Irwin on racial bridge-building
and sensitivity-training projects. But no amount of training seems to have prepared her for the anxiety she feels playing
lord and master.
"This is just so hard," she says weeping.
"This is an African holocaust. This is an American holocaust."
But Dokos sees the exercise as necessary to
understanding the roots of racial hatred in this country.
we don't put ourselves in other people's shoes then we'll never understand what they're going through."
On the other
end of the boat is 18-year-old Shawrone
Williams, who can't stop
crying. The experience of being examined like an animal is a little more than she can handle. Added to that is the realization
that she is the descendant of someone who actually went through such an experience.
"I just wanted to scream until I couldn't scream no more," she sobs. "But I'm tough, I'm hard,
I can take it," she says, regaining her composure.
In the field
By midafternoon the kids have been through a mock slave sale and shipped off to a nearby farm to dig
for potatoes and pick rocks out of fields. The sun is hot, and program volunteer Ed Rhymes is making their lives hellish.
"African, I'll break you!" he screams. "I've broken so many
like you, I can't even remember!"
pushes the slaves through the dirt, shoving them when they won't work or aren't working to his satisfaction.
"I hate doing this," he whispers to an observer, "but I
have to because I really want them to get something out of this. They need to see what it was like."
All the yelling and screaming has taken its toll on 15-year-old Kristen Domingue. Sharp
as a tack and thin as a rail, she's crying silently as she lifts rocks the size of bricks. Earlier, because of her tiny size
she was sold in the mock auction as a toy for master, because she was deemed too frail to be a "breeder." Now she's
in the field with the rest of the students, her sweat blending with tears.
"I was OK, but . . . then those TV cameras were around and I was like, `This is not entertainment, this is my
And that's just the reaction program leaders want.
Feel it. Because it's out of a situation like this that you rose.
We shall overcome
Day 3, and everybody
is tired from running all night through William O'Brien Park, on the way to freedom aboard the Underground Railroad. They
are no longer slaves. Now they are civil rights activists about to march on nearby Marine on St. Croix because they've gotten
wind of a proposal before the City Council that will restrict public school enrollment to residents who have lived in the
town a minimum of six months.
Forget about constitutionality. The
kids smell racism in the proposal. Obviously it's being considered to keep people of color from moving into the quaint tourist
town, they surmise. They're so mad they could spit and they march the three miles from William O'Brien to Marine's City Hall
to tell the council so.
"Somebody may move here and be the
next president of the United States, but you'd never know it because you didn't want to let them in," yells one student.
After making a litany of impassioned speeches, the students are more than a little miffed when Irwin takes to the stage
and tells them it's all a simulation.
But Irwin tells them he's
proud of them, of the way they stood up to express themselves. And it's his hope that they will continue the tradition - in
schools, their communities, wherever they go. For after all, they've walked in their ancestors' footsteps for three days.
It's up to them to continue the journey.