When Kim and Reggie Harris told the story of the Underground Railroad to local kindergarten through third-grade students during this past week, the youngsters undoubtedly learned a great deal about the grim realities of slavery. But when Kim and Reggie tell it, the story speaks of people working together for a common good, celebrates hope and freedom, and leaves the audience feeling joyful and inspired. When the performance ends, many lessons have been taught, but what the kids take away is meaningful in other deeply felt ways.
This amazingly talented, charismatic husband and wife team who have been performing together for over 30 years, are known throughout the land as dynamic ambassadors of hope and joy. Their performances of “Music and the Underground Railroad” in all local public schools opening the Darke County Center for the Arts’ 2015-16 Arts In Education program was warmly received by students and educators alike. The show began with Kim and Reggie singing “Oh, Freedom,” their excellent, fluid voices and engaging presence capturing immediate attention that endured throughout the nearly hour-long program.
“The Underground Railroad was not a train; it was people—people like us, people who believed in freedom, people working together!” Kim intoned, and the captivated audience took note. Reggie explained that although underground can be defined as something below the earth, it also means something secret; and railroad is a means of transportation. Therefore, this secret way of transporting people from slavery to freedom was called the Underground Railroad. Using the American Sign Language symbol for freedom, Kim and Reggie demonstrated breaking binding chains; the rapt students followed suit, at the same time vigorously and enthusiastically shouting “Freedom!”—a concept so important that it was being spoken in two languages at the same time.
Following a deeply felt rendition of “Let My People Go,” Kim related the story of Araminta Ross, who was born into slavery. Araminta strongly believed in freedom, and bravely sought out the Underground Railroad for assistance in the perilous flight from her slave masters. However, once free, she realized that her own freedom was not enough. This former slave who could not read or write became personally responsible for the rescue of 100 slaves, contributed to the freedom of 200 more, and is remembered yet today for her heroism; she took her husband’s last name, dropped her first name in favor of her middle name and is now revered as Harriet Tubman.
Reggie performed a slave song that was not sung in front of masters, its lyrics proclaiming “No more picking cotton, No more auction block for me,” then revealing “Many thousand gone.” He explained that people in slavery often sang songs in code, songs with secrets, songs that when heard by others told a different story from their true meaning for slaves. “Wade In the Water” tells the story of Moses leading his people, but also reminded escaping slaves to stay near fresh water where they could find food, evade detection, and be guided in the right direction by the river’s path.
Reggie briefly assumed the role of a fleeing slave helped by an agent of the Underground Railroad who, to aid the fugitive’s escape, disguises him as an old grandmother. Even though the students laughed as Reggie was dressed in women’s clothes and a bonnet, they understood the gravity of the situation. When Reggie celebrated success in finding freedom, he sang a triumphant song: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” Those words, of course, are etched in the memory of modern Americans as the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, who was recalling and honoring those who had gone before in the unending march to freedom.
Although many names are forgotten and many stories remain untold, the tale of the Underground Railroad reveals the triumph shared by a network of people of all races. That powerful story uplifting the strength and resiliency of the human spirit vibrantly lives in the minds and hearts of local students who experienced Kim and Reggie Harris’s memorable performance.