updated 5/16/2005 4:18:49 AM ET 2005-05-16T08:18:49

The girl stares at the ground, the man looming beside her. Directly ahead is a path for escape. Others stand rigidly with eyes cast downward.

“They’re runaways, ain’t they? You don’t even have a concept of freedom, do you?” the man barks at her face. “You a slave, girl?”

She nods, a few others sniffle.

The 50 children, only one of whom is black, were experiencing the cruelties inflicted upon slaves who tried to escape north through the Underground Railroad.

“Slaves had to go through that every day and I only did it for an hour,” said 11-year-old Nicole Wallis, who was so frightened that she left the living history program halfway through.

The reenactment at the YMCA’s Camp Cosby, about 45 miles east of Birmingham, is one of several nationwide, but uniquely intense. Camp counselors attempt to give a realistic perspective about slavery to fourth- and fifth-grade students by dressing as slave traders, bounty hunters and abolitionist and sending students on a risky journey through the dense woods surrounding the camp.

Uniquely intense experience
The result is a jarring, yet memorable experience that experts say can’t be achieved through a textbook.

“Kids tend to faze out when just reading in a textbook,” said Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association.

Though emotion-packed living history programs are a growing trend, the intensity of the one at Camp Cosby is still rare, said Jane Healey, an educational psychologist based in Vail, Colo.

Children, she said, need to be old enough to handle the program and need to be prepared for what they will experience.

If both those conditions are met, the psychological impact of the camp’s slavery program will be strong, but not necessarily harmful, said Healey, author of “Your Child’s Growing Mind.”

“I’m not particularly worried it’s going to damage children,” she said.

Controversial methods
Similar programs, however, have met with opposition. Civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have protested Civil War reenactments and slave auctions, saying they trivialize black history.

A slave auction begins the camp’s program. Students watch a handful of their classmates get poked and prodded by prospective buyers.

Minutes later they discuss strategies to survive the escape route. They are advised to tell bounty hunters that they are a choir group given permission to travel North for a brief performance. They quiz each other on their masters’ names and pick their slave jobs — blacksmiths, cotton pickers and nannies were favorites.

Their teacher tries to teach them the words to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — for them to sing if their alibi is questioned by bounty hunters.

The jokes, giggles and kindness quickly comes to an end at the foot of the woods.

A woman points them to a cabin, warning them to keep quiet or “they’ll shoot your heads off!” Nearby gunfire sends them running through a maze of trees and underbrush, before they encounter back-to-back obstacles.

“You’re property, and nothing more,” a bounty hunter hisses, pressing his club to a girl’s back. She whimpers a “Yes, sir,” and covers her face with her hands.

Once captured, they’re ordered to haul firewood into a pile, a task they complete obediently — until a farmer knocks it down in spite. Their enemies taunt them with threats of hangings and beatings.

‘Something more than history’
Students are chaperoned by teachers and parent volunteers, who watch the children closely for their reactions. Only four of the Clay Elementary School students stepped out of the simulation.

“It has to be intense,” said Chris Oldenburg, Camp Cosby’s camping services coordinator, who doubles as the bounty hunter sometimes.

“The point is to use history to teach something more than history,” he continued, pointing out that modern students may face several forms of discrimination: race, religion, gender and socio-economic status.

The black student, Lauren Whatley, said she didn’t feel her experience was any more or less significant than that of the white students.

“I kind of felt like everyone else,” said Lauren, 11. “We were all going through it.”

Brindon Sutton, 10, said he learned that white people “shouldn’t treat African-Americans bad because they’re just like us.”

Tyler Gault, who oversees Camp Cosby’s outdoor education program, said black and white students respond similarly to the program because their fear and anticipation during the simulation transcends their individual backgrounds.

“It’s a really vivid lesson in compassion,” Gault said. “We’ll never come close to how horrific or difficult slave life was, but we hope to give them a glimpse.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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