CHAMPAIGN - Tales of battles, bravery and the high price of freedom brought Civil War days home to Jefferson Middle School eighth-graders on Wednesday.
"Has anyone turned the light out on you, and you got scared?" Champaign's Christine Moore, playing Harriet Tubman, asked Jefferson Middle School students at one station where school visitors re-created life and conditions during the mid-1800s.
"When I got free, it was like the light going on," Moore said as Mrs. Tubman, the woman who led more than 300 slaves to freedom in Northern states and Canada via the Underground Railroad. "When you make up your mind to get free, don't let anything get in your way."
Moore, who first created the character for activities at Mount Olive Baptist Church, sang verses of "Go Down, Moses," a song long associated with Mrs. Tubman.
"That stayed in my heart all the time," she said.
Youngsters peppered her with questions throughout the presentation.
"If you could change one thing that you did, what would you change, or would you leave things like they were?" asked Beth Riehle.
"It was a very long, very hard trip," Moore said, adding that she'd do it again to save her people.
Indianapolis resident Andy Bowman told youngsters about his grandfather, Clinton resident Andrew Jackson Smith, who was recommended for a Medal of Honor in 1916 for keeping the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry's flag flying when the regiment's color bearer was killed at the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina.
The medal was finally awarded to Sgt. Smith's descendants in 2001 by President Bill Clinton, and Bowman, who was named for his grandfather, went to the White House to accept it.
"Presidents and military officials salute when they see someone wearing this," he said, showing the boxed medal to the students.
"A lot of people from Illinois and Indiana, volunteers, fought and died so you can live the way you live today and so you can read and write," Bowman told the black youngsters in the class. "If you can't read, they can keep you enslaved."
He said Sgt. Smith escaped from slavery, traveled to Clinton, went to war with a white soldier from the DeWitt County community, returned to Clinton and then, after the Emancipation Proclamation, joined the Massachusetts "colored troops."
At another station, Lauren and Christina Bonse of Champaign, dressed in hoop skirts, outlined the facts of women's lives during the Civil War.
"They were victims of fashion," Lauren Bonse said of the corsets women wore to make their waists look small.
"They took baths once or twice a month because it took so long," Christina Bonse said. "They wore clothes two to four days because washing was so complicated."
"They were never alone with a man, never alone on the street," Lauren Bonse said."They were owned by their fathers, then by their husbands."
Youngsters had plenty of questions about quirky and puritanical customs of the day, and they said they had a new appreciation for today's freedoms.
"These are hands-on activities that give kids a chance to look at an entire spectrum of life at the time," said Jefferson media specialist Greg Novak, who said eighth-graders just completed studies about the Civil War era.
"Everyone learns something about Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers," Novak said. "They learn about President Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln. It's a thematic unit, we're tying everything together and giving them a chance to ask questions."
Re-enacters got the day off to a lively start by firing a cannon, he said. It was the sixth annual Civil War day at the school.
Teacher Carol McKinney said about 250 students took part in the events.
"It's really good because the students are interacting with people who have a passion for the Civil War," McKinney said. "You can't replicate that in a classroom. These are people who travel all over the country, and they have a lot of props, things we don't have here in school."
Michael Saks, who signaled session changes by playing bugle calls in the halls with classmate Lydia Wallbaum, said he learned a lot of practical facts about the period to give color to the historical facts he learned in his classroom. "We learned a lot about weapons and cartridges, about the differences in uniforms and about Mary Todd Lincoln and why she acted the way she did," Saks said. "It was very educational."