Jan 24, 2014

Show Sheds New Light on NC Native’s Involvement in the Underground Railroad

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Although area students have spent the past few weeks learning about slavery and some of the well-known heroes of the Underground Railroad like Harriet Tubman, local teachers are always eager to tie their history lessons to North Carolina when possible, and the events that occurred closer to home.

So it’s no wonder a number of area schools have already booked tickets for College of The Albemarle’s upcoming one-day performance of Heroes of the Underground Railroad on Thursday, Jan. 30 at the college’s Performing Arts Center. In addition to learning about well-known historical figures like Tubman and Frederick Douglass, stories of some lesser known heroes of that period will also be told. One story features Levi Coffin, a forgotten Greensboro, N.C., native who played a significant role in the Underground Railroad.

“I believe Levi Coffin ended up helping 2,500 people," said David Ostergaard, founder of Bright Star Touring Theatre, the group performing Heroes of the Underground Railroad. Ostergaard learned that Coffin, an abolitionist who later moved to Ohio, helped a group of escaped slaves escape to the North after their boat capsized in Cincinnati. With slave hunters watching the bridges for escaped slaves, Coffin disguised the group as a funeral procession and walked them through town and to their escape.

“His home was called the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad and he was named President of the Underground Railroad,” Ostergaard said, referring to Coffin and his Ohio home.

Ostergaard’s Asheville, N.C., theater group performs for schools throughout the United States and specializes in education-based performances aimed at meeting the needs of school curriculums. Ostergaard learned about Coffin’s story after a visit to the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Philadelphia. It surprised him because Ostergaard, a North Carolina native, had never learned about Coffin as a student. It was just one of the stories he learned about at the Freedom Center.

“I’m a product of North Carolina schools and had never heard these stories before, ” Ostergaard said. “I never heard any of these stories growing up, so it inspired us to create the show.”

Learning about these lesser known historical figures, especially as they relate to state history and the state curriculum, is a big draw for area schools. Fay Agar, principal of Northside Elementary School, will be bringing about 100 of her school’s students to see the production at the month’s end.

“The second-grade is planning on going because it’s aligned with their curriculum,” Agar said.
“These productions,” she added, “have a way of expanding the children’s early understanding and have a way of making these events come alive. It deepens their understanding.”

Before booking the historical production on the Underground Railroad, Mariah Schierer, manager of COA’s Performing Arts Center, contacted a number of area schools about a year ago, to discuss what sort of programming would fit in with their curriculums in late January.

“I know the teachers really appreciate that we try to focus our programs on the core curriculum that they’re teaching, ” Schierer said.

In November, COA hosted another production, Bluegrass & Tall Tales, which Schierer also based on feedback she received from local schools studying Tall Tales like those of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.
“We really try to focus on what’s being taught in the schools,” Schierer added. “Our Student Series are designed to be educational and able to be integrated into the North Carolina Core Curriculum.”
Both historical productions were created by Bright Star Touring Theatre.

To reinforce the history taught in the productions, Schierer said, the theater group also invites students to take part in the performances.

“The productions from Bright Star are designed to be participatory, ” she said. “They will bring students on stage. ”

For example, Shierer added, students may be given a tall hat to wear and asked a question which they have to answer like Abraham Lincoln might have, or they may be handed a musical instrument from the time period and asked to play it.

“Children really love being a part of something,” Schierer said. “Which is why live theater is wonderful. You can read something in a textbook, but when you are faced with that person, that makes them real to you.”
Jana Rawls, principal of Colombia Middle School in Colombia, N.C., said currently the school’s eighth-grade social studies students are learning about slavery and will also be in attendance during the Jan. 30 performance.

After teachers at the school began researching educational theater productions relating to slavery
and its connections to North Carolina’s history, Rawls said they were specifically interested in Heroes of the Underground Railroad.

“The teachers, when they read it, they felt it was a perfect connection with what they’re currently studying,” Rawls said. “Education is not just from a book. It’s from many different sources, so we like to give them as many sources as we can.”

Currently, Colombia Middle School students are learning about local slave history and are reading the book, Letters From a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs - which chronicles the story of Jacobs, a teenage slave in Edenton who hid in her grandmother’s attic for nearly seven years until she was able to escape to the North years later.

“It’s relevant because it’s local history,” Rawls said. “Anything we can do to make those connections, we try to do it.”
Helping students make those connections and learn about history in an engaging and accessible way, Ostergaard said, is the aim of his theater group.
“American History is an important subject,” he said, “so we come in and support schools in making it more of a subject, hopefully to spark students’ interest to learn about it on their own.”

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