Freedom: The Underground Railroad and America’s Slavery Pop Culture Moment

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Slavery in the United States is having a moment in today’s popular culture. Suddenly again the long, complicated and violent history of slavery is seemingly everywhere — movie and TV screens, bookstores and even Presidential politics. Chalk it up to the mostly-ignored 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, a surging national conversation on race in America or a growing recognition among cultural creators for the need to tell this story, but slavery is importantly among us.

Slavery in contemporary fiction: Underground Airlines and The Underground Railroad

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters has been my late summer read. The book depicts a dystopian alternate contemporary United States where the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists in a pocket of Southern states and the hard-boiled narrator (himself an escaped former slave) pursues runaway slaves looking to escape north to Canada. Colson Whitehead’s newly-released The Underground Railroad takes a more historical fictional approach following an escaped Georgia slave girl’s journey north through a fantastically re-imagined Underground Railroad consisting of an actual network of secret railway routes.

Slavery on contemporary television: Roots and Underground

On small screens, no telling of the story of American slavery has been greater than in the landmark 1977 TV miniseries Roots which I watched as a child. Almost 40 years later, the summer began with a well-reviewed remake of the series on the History Channel, once again telling the multi-generational story of a family from Africa to slavery to freedom. Earlier in the year, Underground premiered on WGN with a fictional drama telling the tale of a group of slaves making the decision to escape their Georgia plantation. A second season will be premiering in 2017 and the first season has just become available for streaming on Hulu.

Slavery on contemporary film: Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave, Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation

Hollywood has a spotty history with slavery but some old favorites of mine include the story of the first black volunteer regiment in the Civil War epic Glory (1989) and the slave ship revolt trial film Amistad (1997). Django Unchained (2012) somewhat controversially showed how slavery could be used as framework for what was essentially a violent action film. The following year’s Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) returned to a true narrative of a New York freeman sold South into slavery and winning his freedom again. In 2016, two movies have turned to historical armed slave uprisings with Free State of Jones and The Birth of the Nation, a film which riffs on the title of the classic pro-KKK 1915 movie in the telling of the story of the martyred slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star published in Rochester, NY from 1847-1851

While stories of slavery, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad are currently in our pop culture media landscape, my years growing up south of Rochester, NY exposed me to all this history from an early age. Escaped slave, writer and activist Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester in the 1840s through 1870s and was eventuality buried there upon his death in 1895. Harriet Tubman, another escaped slave, activist and escort along the Underground Railroad, also settled in nearby Auburn, NY and was buried there in 1913. Stories, historic sites and statues to the abolitionists of the period litter Western New York, as do the routes and stops along the Underground Railroad — some factual and some folklore.

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Solo play set up for Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Academy Games

While the Civil War has long been a popular period among historical miniatures wargamers and board game players like myself, the subject of slavery has been largely ignored. That changed in 2012 with the release of Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games. The intense board game presents the period from 1800 through 1865 with players cooperatively taking on the roles of abolitionists and conductors of escaped slaves along historical routes from the Deep South to freedom in Canada.

Playing against the game, players must work together in Freedom to raise funds, build abolitionist support and ferry slaves from three plantation areas of the South. A series of actions in each round give players choices in moving escapees, fundraising and buying cards as slave hunters prowl routes in the North attempting to recapture slaves seeking freedom in Canada. The cards depict historical events and people that assist or hinder the mission of the players, with each of the three rounds of the game revealing cards specific to the events of different periods of the era. As each turn ends, more slaves (depicted as small wooden blocks) fill the Southern plantations so the game is a race against time from the start. Only by rescuing a certain number of slaves and building anti-slavery support by the game’s end results in a victory.

And victory is difficult and harrowing. Playing through the game several times in both its solo and multi-player mode, Freedom has an intensity I’ve rarely felt in a board game. Hard, balanced choices have to be made to lure slave hunters away from Underground Railroad routes and players likewise have to keep an eye on not only moving their escaped slaves northward but on the other important aspects of raising money and gaining support for the cause. After several games, I realized some slaves had to be heartrendingly sacrificed and captured in order to allow others to escape. By game’s end, players can be emotionally exhausted and I’ve even heard of some crying during play.

Playing Freedom reveals the difficulty of depicting slavery and the story of the Underground Railroad in game form. Making Freedom a collaborative game with players working against the construct of the game does a remarkable job of presenting the challenge the entrenched system of slavery presented to those working against it for decades under long odds and seemingly little chance for success. Academy Games does a great job in providing informative historical context in the rule book as well as making available a 72-page teacher’s guide to using the game in the classroom.

Much as our popular culture has struggled to deliver diverse, accurate and compelling stories of slavery in books, television and movies, it is most probably the complicated nature of  the history that has kept game makers away from the topic for so long. Thankfully Academy Games has risen gloriously to the challenge with Freedom and filled an important gap in historical gaming and our popular understanding of slavery in The United States.

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Flames of War: Fielding the 92nd Infantry Division Buffalo Soldiers

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Although African-Americans have fought in every war in US history, their fight has often come on multiple fronts of prejudice and acceptance at home and abroad. Segregated units such as the famed 54th Massachusetts during the American Civil War and the 369th Infantry Regiment Harlem Hellfighters in World War I have received their due in popular culture in recent years, as have the WWII pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen.

On the ground, African-Americans in WWII were most often relegated to support roles early in the war as truck drivers, stevedores and cooks. By late in the war with reserves of Allied soldiers dwindling throughout the European campaigns, black soldiers were pressed into service at the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge and the Italian Campaign. It was in the actions in Italy where the famed 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers added another chapter to their service history.

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Shoulder insignia of the 92nd Infantry Division ‘Buffalo Soldiers’

The Buffalo Soldiers in the Italian Campaign

The name “Buffalo Soldiers” dates back to the frontier Indian Wars of the 19th-century when post-Civil War free blacks volunteered for service in various US army capacities in the West. Later, these units continued serving in various capacities through the Spanish-American War and into WWI. Reactivated in 1942, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division finally made their way to the war via Italy in the fall of 1944.

Video of the 92nd Infantry arriving in Italy in October 1944

As part of the US 5th Army, the 12,000 men of the 92nd Infantry made up part of the multinational Allied coalition of US, Brazilian, British and UK Commonwealth forces which sought to break the Gothic Line. Cutting across Italy, the Axis hoped to hold off any further Allied progress north to meet with other Allied forces pressing through Europe from Normandy inland toward Berlin.

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A 92nd Infantry Division mortar crew firing near Massa, Italy

Led by senior white officers in otherwise segregated units, the 92nd Infantry made up a key element of the left flank of the Allied push up through the Italian peninsula. Crossing the Arno River and proceeding north, the 92nd made its way up the Mediterranean coast  through Lucca, Massa and on to La Spezia and Genoa by the time of Axis surrender in May 1945.

The legacy of the contributions of the 92nd Infantry Division’s effectiveness in Italy has been much-debated. A paper from the 1950s does what I read to be a good job in explaining the challenges the Buffalo Soldiers faced — delays in reinforcements,  shortages in re-supply and a lack of training for the kind of terrain encountered in Italy. I believe much of this can be chalked-up to the ingrained organizational racism against the segregated units. Post-war, the members of the Buffalo Soldiers also returned to a United States still entrenched in racial discrimination. It was not until the late 1990s that two members of the 92nd were recognized with Medal of Honor commendations, some fifty years after the war’s end.

Spike Lee’s Miracle At St. Anna

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As a wargamer and film fan, I often turn to the movies to cross-pollinate my interest in a period. Spike Lee’s Miracle At St. Anna from 2008 tells the story of four soldiers from the 92nd Infantry who hide out in a small Tuscan village and bond with its residents amid the oppression and danger of German occupiers. Lee’s movies often run hot and cold, and Miracle at St. Anna met with mixed reviews, poor box office results and a fair amount of criticism over the lack of historical accuracy. All that said, the Italian locations and strong individual performances makes the movie worth a view for a rare glimpse of African-American soldiers in WWII cinema.

Modelling the 92nd Infantry Division for Flames of War

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In late February 2014, the revised Flames of War Road To Rome and Fortress Italy compilation was released as an updated and expanded guide to the Italy campaign of 1944 and 1945. The Fortress Italy book covers the German and Italian defenders, and Road To Rome outlines the Allied US, British, Polish, French and lesser-known UK Commonwealth forces from Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa. A third book, Italy Battles, provides special mission rules, battle scenarios and campaign notes for Anzio (aka “Operation Shingle”) and Monte Cassino.

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Having dedicated years of my FOW modelling and gaming to Western Europe, these books provided a great opportunity for myself and other members of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY to dive into a club-wide Italian project. I’ve also been wanting to put together a unique company for my FOW collection, and I was pleased to find the 92nd Infantry Regiment outlined in the Road To Rome book. With all our focus on the Italy theater, we’ve decided to dive headlong into a multi-month FOW Infantry Aces campaign, and there will be more to come with updates on our new Infantry Aces blog.

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For my 92nd Infantry I decided to snap up the two sets from the Plastic Soldier Company – Late War US Infantry 1944-45 and US Infantry Heavy Weapons. At about $26 a box from my favorite online dealer The Warstore, the PSC kits are a huge value in fielding an entire infantry company along with bazooka, machine gun and mortar supporting weapons. Assembly involves lots of small parts and bases must be purchased separately, but getting a whole company on the table for a fraction of the costs of FOW models can’t be beaten.

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Pvt. Fred “Radio” Rogers and Lt. Daniel McFeeley

To fill out my force, I picked of the FOW Infantry Aces set for about $12. The pack gives you nine stands of character models to create special Infantry Ace command stands for use in the Infantry Aces campaign. The blister pack includes general US, British and German models with special Fallschirmjäger, Japanese-American Nisei, Kiwi and turbaned Indian characters. I shared the models with my fellow players at our club, and modelling these guys really adds some nice personality to the game. For my Command Ace stand, I’ve modeled the fictional Pvt. Fred “Radio” Rogers and Lt. Daniel McFeeley leading the way for my company.

IMG_3670One of my three rifle platoons for the 92nd Infantry Division

In the FOW Italy campaign, the 92nd Infantry Division is rated as Confident-Trained making my force cheap and numerous. To start, I’ve constructed three rifle platoons with two rifle squads each plus a platoon command and bazooka in support. Along with my rifles and McFeeley and Rogers leading the way, I’m also bringing a weapons platoon in support. The platoon packs a punch with three 60mm mortars and four M1919 machine gun crews.

IMG_3671My Buffalo Soldiers mortar and machine gun weapons platoon

For all my models, I glued the PSC soldiers and equipment onto FOW bases and then hit them with an army green spray coat base. Boots, equipment, rifle stocks and flesh got a dark brown. Pants were done in a tan paint and leggings got a brownish off-white color. Guns were finished off in a metal coat. Basing involved a layer of fine gravel and larger rocks coated in a brown wash and then dry-brushed in a grey-white. Finally, tufts of brown-green grass completed the Mediterranean look of the models.

The beginnings of my platoon will be hitting the tabletop shores of Italy this coming weekend in their first round of our club’s Infantry Aces campaign. In the coming weeks I’ll be adding additional infantry weapons support with additional mortars, machine guns and more infantry. Even before these guys see their first action, I’m pretty thrilled to have put in the time to create some pretty unique models that I haven’t found modeled anywhere else at this scale. As in WWII years ago, I think the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers have been too often forgotten by mainstream history and many gamers alike. With my soldiers hitting the field again, I hope to bring a bit more glory back to these men who not only contributed to the fight against Axis fascism but also stood bravely against the tide of so much history against them.

“The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks

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My interests in American history, graphic novels and little-known accounts of war have recently intersected with gripping The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks. Written by Brooks — the well-known author of World War Z — and illustrated by Caanan White, The Harlem Hellfighters recounts the struggles and victories of the 369th Infantry Division as the first African-American regiment to see combat in World War I.

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Period poster for the 369th Infantry Regiment

The 369th was composed of a volunteers from many backgrounds reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era’s diverse black population crowding the streets of northern Manhattan. The volunteers included Caribbean and African immigrants, migrants from the American South and native-born New Yorkers. As a green fighting force, the urban laborers, artists, musicians, farm workers and students who fought as the Harlem Hellfighters went on to distinguish themselves in the late stages of WWI and became among the first American Expeditionary Forces to push over the hard-fought German lines.

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James Reese Europe (left) and members of the 369th Infantry Regiment marching band

Brooks has a long-held interest in the Hellfighters, and he had tried unsuccessfully over the years to bring a script to movie or television production. Following on the international success of World War Z, Brooks decided on the graphic novel format to bring the Hellfighter story to a mass audience. Based on real characters in a fictionalized story, the book traces the regiment’s path from basic training in a Jim Crow American South to the trenches of Europe under the command of the French army. Even after winning distinction in early engagements, the members of the Hellfighters ran up against racism which followed them to Europe.

The story of band leader James Reese Europe forms just part of the tale, but is illustrative of both the acceptance of the arrival of black US troops and their rejection by the laws and traditions of white Europeans and their countrymen at home and abroad. Reese is largely credited with introducing jazz to European audiences, and although he would survive the war, he died soon after his return to the States at the hand of fellow band member. The mix of challenges, triumphs and tragedies on and off the field of battle makes the story of the 369th an incredibly compelling story every American should know.

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Troops from the 36th Infantry Regiment in the trenches

The Harlem Hellfighters is illustrated in a jagged, dark style by African-American artist White amid pages crowded with rich individual character stories and broader narratives of an era marked by the horrors of modernized warfare as well as lynchings and street-beatings. To the interested reader, there are many jumping-off points into a deeper story of the 369th and their ripple-effects on 20th-century American race history still being wrangled with today.

The 369th arrived back to the States and were celebrated with a heroic parade in New York City. The 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in northern Manhattan still stands today as one of the few monuments to this often-forgotten chapter in a war which is also largely-ignored in our teaching of US history. For the veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters, their fight in Europe would continue back home through the labor and civil rights movements in the decades to come.

Just ahead of the book’s publication in early April, Sony Pictures announced it had acquired the rights to bring the story of the 369th to the big screen with production backing from Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. With the The Harlem Hellfighters and the promise of a movie adaptation, hope springs anew that 100 hundred years on the American men of the 369th get the recognition they earned in spirit and blood.