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"A man who cares nothing about his past can care little about his future."

   -Abraham Lincoln

Tracing History

Hammond High students follow Underground Railroad on weeklong bus trip

Local students, from left, Jauan Gaten, Raymond Glasper, Gieno Smith, Chaz McGee, chaperone Robert Martin and Raymond Addison stand outside Trust United Methodist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, after attending church services. They passed through Oberlin while retracing the Underground Railroad during a seven-day trip across the country and into Canada

Slaves used the Underground Railroad to secretly escape captivity before and during the Civil War. Five high school students from Hammond High School used the Underground Railroad to recapture a part of their ancestors' history this summer.

The seven-day trip took the students through Ohio and Michigan and into Canada last month. Five other students from Baton Rouge, chaperone Robert Martin and Edna Jordan Smith, founder of the Afro-Louisiana Historical and Genealogical Society, went with them. "I learned how we, black people, have come a long way," said Gieno Smith, 16, reflecting on the once-in-a-lifetime trip. "I learned a lot about my ancestors and people I have never heard about."

Martin, a local educator, helped Smith, a genealogical researcher at the Bluebonnet Genealogy Library in Baton Rouge, find students to participate in the tour. "We were looking for young men with good character and those who would share the information with others," he said. "We also wanted to broaden their horizons." The first step to extended horizons was Oberlin, Ohio, the site of a legendary Underground Railroad station.

The students not only got to visit the area, but also they participated in a Juneteenth parade commemorating the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The boys represented Louisiana's black men who fought with the Union troops during the Civil War in the parade, Smith said.

"It is documented that Louisiana had more blacks who fought (in the Civil War) than any other state- 24,052 to be exact," she wrote in a letter to the students' parents.

Most of the students' said the march and wearing the soldiers' garb were what they enjoyed most on the trip.

"Marching was my favorite part. It really took a lot of guts for us little black boys to march in front of all those people representing the soldiers," said Chaz Mcgee, 16.

McGee, a Hammond High student, said he no longer takes his freedom for granted after seeing the sites where slaves risked their lives to gain freedom more than a century ago.

After leaving Oberlin, the group travelled by bus to Chatham, Ontario, one of the largest Underground Railroad terminals in Canada, Smith said. While there, the students also visited the community of Buxton, started by 15 Louisiana slaves from East Feliciana Parish.

Raymond Addison,15, said he found the visit in Canada to be one of most memorable parts of the trip. After a day in Chatham, the group stopped in Dresden, Toronto and St Catharines, for a brief visit of the town where Harriet Tubman settled her fugitives who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad.

Back in the United States, the group visited the graves of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y., and of Tubman in Auburn, N.Y..

The last stops before heading home were a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.

Jauan Gaten, 16, said the experience was far greater than anything he has learned in history class and he plans to use his experience in school next year.

"I thought Uncle Tom's Cabin was that, a cabin," Gaten said "Now, I'll be the smartest one in (history) class".

Martin said he hopes the trip leaves a lasting impression on the boys. It did for him.

"It was just a mind-blower for me," he said. "I taught fifth-grade last year as a substitute and to actually go to the locations in the textbooks was amazing. There's so much that is left out of the textbooks. I think every kid should go on a trip like this before they go to Disneyland or AstroWorld."

"I hope that it will cause (the boys) to want to make sure that their children and their grandchildren see what they saw. They will be better able to participate in the subject when they read about it in school and maybe it will help them to become better fathers or better persons knowing that in spite of what the slaves went through they were able to keep going."

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