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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Touching History at the Military History Society of Rochester

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I have logged many, many hours over the years visiting battlefields, historical homes, living heritage sites, reenactments, roadside markers and all sorts of art, history and military museums. Near the top of these experiences was a full day I spent at the Imperial War Museum a few years back while working in London for over a month. With over two million visitors a year and some 11 millions artifacts, the IWM is hard to beat for immersing yourself in the history of warfare.

This past week I had a very different, yet truly remarkable experience in my first visit to the Military History Society of Rochester. Located up a flight of stairs in a warehouse inhabited by various artist galleries and studios, the MHSR occupies roughly 2000 square feet of space packed with all manner of historical artifacts focused on telling the story of the US military through the local lens of Rochester, NY.

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A timeline of US long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War at the MHSR

Founded several years ago by Chuck Baylis as the American Civil War Artillery Association, the group’s mission has since grown beyond his original collection of Civil War artifacts to encompass American wars from the Revolution to the present. The first room still focuses on the Civil War including detailed displays on artillery, uniforms and the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment formed in Rochester in 1862. A timeline of American long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War covers an entire wall.

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A timeline of military uniforms from the American War of Independence through the present at the MHSR

In the rear space of the museum, the focus swings to 20th-century with displays on World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and present day wars. Uniforms, guns, swords, equipment hang from the walls, rest on shelves and lay slung over mannequins. Scale model airplanes hang from the ceiling, model vehicles rest on the floors and cases and a D-Day diorama sits nearby. Throughout the museum are some 2000 books as well as countless other letters, maps, photos, schematics, deck plans, prints, posters and other ephemera for perusal or research.

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 A US .50 caliber machine gun at the MHSR

Baylis has been joined by a number of passionate volunteers who can be found at the museum during its operating hours on Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. Civil War reenactor, historian and wargamer Mike Vasile (co-author of the excellent Arena Games: Gladiatorial Combat rules) is responsible for many of the scale dioramas throughout the museum. Scale ship modeller Timothy Igoe of Historia Militaris Shipways has contributed several naval models to the collection and is currently undertaking a build of the USS Rochester (CA-2) for the museum. Retired Social Studies teacher Orton Begner rounds out the group with a deep knowledge of every object on hand.

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A US M1919 Browning machine gun at the MHSR

The one-to-one interaction with the MHSR’s members and the collection is what sets the museum apart from any other I’ve every visited. Everything has been well labeled, organized and put on display but hardly anything in the museum sits behind glass. Care to hold the various types of artillery rounds used in the Civil War? Want to feel the heft of a WWII era Thompson submachine gun or M-1 rifle? Would you like to take a look inside a pack carried by an American GI on D-Day? Want to lie down with a German MG-42? Ever wanted to hold a Japanese officer’s sword or 1913 “Patton Saber”? Just about everything in the museum, with the proper care, respect and assistance from one of the staff, can be touched, offering an incredibly rare opportunity to physically connect with past.

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 A German MG-42 and StG 44 at the MHSR

The mission to bring history alive beyond the walls of the museum also occurs with the exhibits members of the group bring to school groups and veteran events in the Rochester area. With its focus on celebrating the men and women of Western New York’s service in every branch of the military past and present, the museum is serving a unique and human mission of connecting today’s generations to a long tradition military service.

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My son gets some hands-on time with a Thompson submachine gun at the MHSR

In all my years of interest in history and military heritage, I have yet to find a museum as alive as the experience found at the Military History Society of Rochester. As a wargamer, the opportunity to see and handle so many objects up close is unparalleled. My time spent at the museum on my first visit was brief, but meeting the guys and seeing the collection at the museum will definitely bring me back my next time in Rochester.

Interview with Chuck Baylis of the MHSR

The Military History Society of Rochester is located in the Anderson Arts Building at 250 North Goodman Street on the second floor. Admission is free.

Pinball, Pixels and Play In Rochester, New York

StrongMuseumIt’s been a couple years since I visited The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, but I took advantage of a recent week visiting my family in Western New York to pay the place a visit. The museum was founded in the early 1980s with the massive hoard of dolls, toys, games, household items and other objects collected over the lifetime of Rochester heiress Margaret Woodbury Strong. Since then the museum has evolved and expanded to encompass the more recent history of play, as evidenced in some of the wonderful exhibits I had a chance to see this past month.

Pinball Playfields

2014-07-08 11.59.24Running through September 7, 2014, Pinball Playfields offers up a tight overview of the American history of coin-operated pinball machines from their earliest appearance in the 1930s through today. A number of early games from the museum’s permanent collection kick off the small exhibit showing the first rudimentary gravity-fed games where balls plunked and clinked their way through a series of “pins” which would give the game its name.

2014-07-08 12.00.10Early 1930s and 1940s pinball machines

By the 1940s, electrified games were on the rise and the introduction of flippers late in the decade added enormous playability and control for anyone willing to feed the growing craze a coin at a time. As explained on the brief wall text, it was this coin-fed frenzy that caused many cultural killjoys throughout the country to advocate for laws banning pinball as a frightening tool of gambling in the 1940s through 1970s (just this past summer, Oakland, California finally repealed an 80-year ban on pinball).

2014-07-08 12.02.40Superman pinball (1979)

Despite its opponents, pinball fandom grew into the 1960s and 1970s, crossing over into rock music with The Who’s iconic “Pinball Wizard” from 1969’s Tommy. In my 70s childhood I can easily recall many pinball machines tucked into pizza parlor corners or inhabiting the basements of some of my lucky friends with their constant glow of light and pinging sounds. The exhibit includes a number of playable machines from the 60s and 70s, including superhero tie-ins with Superman and the Incredible Hulk which demonstrate intersecting pop culture influences on games.

2014-07-08 12.12.03Hercules (1979) — the largest pinball machine ever made

By the late 1970s video games were creeping into territory dominated by pinball machines. Gimmicky games like 1979’s enormous Hercules machine attempted to maintain the hold on fistfuls of coins which would soon be increasingly making their way to video arcades. With video games dominating coin-fed play throughout the 1980s, it was not until the 1990s and the 2000s that pinball rebounded by incorporating increasingly-complex mechanical animations, advanced LED and video screen elements into games. The more recent Wizard of Oz, Monster Bash, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games on display — and all playable — show how the old-time pinball fun has truly been integrated with a modern thirst for visual effects overload.

Aside from the dozen or so playable machines, Pinball Playfields gives a good deal of historical information with descriptive text, early photos and advertisements, news articles and modern design schematics. All this is certainly fine stuff for the museum context, but anytime I found myself lingering a bit too long over some of the historical material I had to look around to find my wife and kids feeding another token and pulling back the plunger to start another play.

eGameRevolution

2014-07-08 13.01.51The last time I was at the Museum of Play, the museum had just launched its important International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The collection now contains tens-of-thousands of video game artifacts, making it one of the most important repositories and research resources for the dominant mode of play of the past forty years. The debut exhibit a few years back presented an overview of  video game history and dozens of playable arcade and home games from the 1960s through the present. My latest visit allowed me time to see the full permanent exhibit, eGameRevolution.

2014-07-08 13.20.36Early home video game systems from the 1960s and 1970s

2014-07-08 13.20.26The Atari 2600 and Apple II computer — two machines that changed my world in 1977

The exhibit traces the development of the now-ubiquitous video game from its science lab beginnings of the early 60s through early console and home computer games in the 70s and 80s to the modern games which now inhabit so many living rooms worldwide. Changes in the sophisticated technology, graphics and marketing of video games are well-traced along with traditional curated displays behind glass. And, of course, there are plenty of playable games throughout the exhibit.

2014-07-08 13.22.23The video arcade in the eGameRevolution exhibit at the International Museum of Play

Pinball machines, an air hockey table, arcade cabinet classics, interactive dance and music games and a half-dozen home console games of different eras are set throughout the exhibit. A dark, low-ceilinged room reminiscent of the video arcades inhabited by many first generation video gamers like myself in the 1980s is set in the middle of the more traditional displays. At five plays for a buck, a visitor to eGameRevolution can easily lose themselves in decades of electronic gaming history.

 Game Time!

2014-07-08 13.09.07Museum goers willing to take a few steps further back in time will also find a dizzying and deep story of traditional games in the Game Time! permanent exhibit nearby. Three centuries of American board, card, puzzle and electronic games with brief, well-researched text offers a tremendous overview for those who wonder how gaming culture has evolved since the 19th-century.

2014-07-08 13.04.51An early 1970s Dungeons & Dragons set and the famed Dark Tower game from 1981

Games are arranged both in a historic timeline and also along themes such as economic games, chase games, strategy games and puzzle games. Along the way, a story unfolds where games provide a view into the American values and politics of each era, as well as the rise of the big business of games and the importance licensing particularly in the late 20th-century through the present.

2014-07-08 13.10.29War games, including classics like Risk (1959), Stratego (1961) and Battleship (1967)

2014-07-08 13.11.05Role-playing games, including 1970s and 1980s Dungeons & Dragons books

Wargames and role-playing games each receive their equal due with an early copy of Little Wars by H.G. Wells and some classic Dungeons & Dragons books from its genesis in the early 1970s. Seeing these games side-by-side with other games, like the extensive exhibit on Monopoly, is incredibly validating for someone like myself who has spent my life engaged in games which once dwelt only at the edges of our culture.

Putting all these games — from pinball and video games to board and role-playing games — which so shaped my youth and those of countless others within a broader context of American history is something one can experience in few places like you can at the Strong Museum of Play. If you can get yourself to Rochester, stealing away a few hours to play through time will be time (and maybe some game tokens) well-spent.