Field Notes: Journey to Freedom
It is a tricky thing to try to convey the intricacies of a slave escape. Trickier still is recreating the experience for a 21st-century audience. My colleague Bill Rasmussen’s blog, How Did Slaves Escape (October 20), gives some background about an audiovisual program that will be in our upcoming civil war exhibition. Initially I was apprehensive about a technological application that would mimic an escape. Yet, during discussions we determined early on that we wanted an immersive experience rather than a gaming experience. We hope to draw visitors into the often-harrowing route taken by enslaved people as they sought freedom during the war. We have included several decision points along the route, and we believe that this thought-provoking approach will encourage the visitor to think about slave escapes in a more complex way.
Recently I had the good fortune to work with Boston Productions, the company producing the a/v program. I loved being in the field, first in Appomattox and later at their studio outside of Boston. On a cold crisp morning we met at Appomattox National Park to shoot footage for the a/v program. Along with the Boston Productions’ crew and the park ranger, we were joined by several civil war reenactors. We tramped through fields and woods, we ate lunch on the side of the road, we filmed the interior of a slave cabin, and we watched the sun go down in this place where Lee surrendered to Grant. I talked with the reenactors who shared their love for the hobby and the motivations that led them to become reenactors. I learned about buttons and belt buckles, hominy and hoecakes, and handmade breeches and shirts. This group lived in central Virginia; their ancestors had fought in the war, most for the Confederacy. Yet, whether Union or Confederate, black or white, at the heart of Virginia’s civil war history are families torn apart for one reason or another and making every effort to live as free people.
Not only was Boston Productions exemplary in their professional role, but they also exhibited a passion about their work that energizes me still. I visited their studios for two days as we taped professional actors and actresses. The crew showed me how they superimposed the characters into scenes that had been shot in Appomattox. They listened to my suggestions and asked my opinion as we massaged the script, wrestled with costume changes, and worked with dialogue. How do I help Northerners to sound like a Virginian? I asked myself as I listened while the actors rehearsed. They adapted and seemed honored to be involved in a historical drama that their ancestors might have experienced. I wanted them to portray dignified people who although locked into slavery had glimpsed hope in the midst of war. The actors delivered riveting performances and I believe visitors will come away from this experience appreciating the civil war from another, less well-known perspective. I know I have.
Lauranett Lee is curator of African American history at the Virginia Historical Society.