Exploring Freedom: 2024 Underground Railroad (UGRR) Youth Camp

UGRR Youth Camp 2024 Middle School students present their paintings and projects
Credit: Paintings, Nailah Ikhlas, Parent looking at historic picture, Finnegan Sperry presenting, Jordan Warren presenting
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By: Shaniele Brown

Fifteen middle school students from South Jersey plunged into the rich history of Lawnside and learned about the abolitionists who played pivotal roles in the Underground Railroad at the Lawnside Historical Society’s third annual UGRR Youth Camp in June.

Activities included arts and crafts, visits to the Peter Mott House Museum, Mt. Peace Cemetery, Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church, and storytelling sessions, led by camp directors and retired educators Muneerah Higgs and Jacqueline Miller-Bentley.

A visit to the Dr. James Still Historic Office and Education Center in Medford was another program highlight. Guides explained the harrowing story of Levin and Charity Still, their free-born children including William Still, called Father of the Underground Railroad and his brother James Still, who was known as the Black doctor of the Pines.

UGRR Youth Camp educator, Muneerah Higgs with Middle School campers.

“Our goal was to educate middle school students about African American history, including the operations of the Underground Railroad in the United States during the 19th century, and how enslaved people communicated through codes since it was illegal for them to read and write,” explained Miller-Bentley.

During the closing ceremony at Grace Temple Baptist Church in Lawnside the campers presented what they learned to parents, family and friends. Some told the story of Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man who shipped himself to freedom. Others wrote poems, essays using emojis or explained their Underground Railroad-inspired paintings. Nasir Ikhlas wrote a story about modern students sent back in a time machine to learn to honor the lives of enslaved people and Black history.

Twelve-year-old Londyn Goins Moore said she felt the urge to sing “Amazing Grace” because it’s about freedom. “We’ve been learning about how Harriet Tubman was helping enslaved people to be free. I think that slavery is a bad thing, so I needed to learn more about it,” she said.

Keynote speaker Rann Miller, director for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Camden Promise Charter School Network, engaged the audience with insights from his book “Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids.” He told the story of Ona Judge, enslaved by George and Martha Washington, who exhibited extraordinary courage by escaping from the Philadelphia White House in 1796. Judge fled with the help of free friends in Pennsylvania and despite numerous attempts to recapture her spent the rest of her life as a free woman in New England.

Sharron Whitney gave Glenn Arterbridge, middle school graduate, a plaque for completing the first youth docent training program for the Peter Mott House. Having mastered its history, he  led tours for the public and Lawnside School third graders. Ms. Whitney encouraged campers to apply for the program in the fall.

“Black history is American history, without it American history is incomplete,” said Higgs.

Miller, who autographed his book for each camper said, “To the young people, congratulations for what you’ve done, the paintings, the work, and the things you’ve learned throughout the program.”

The summer camp was supported by a grant from the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission, a partner to the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Snacks and beverages were provided by Zallie’s Community Foundation.

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