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At Pentucket, tracing the routes of runaway slaves

Pentucket Regional High freshmen Jack Donahue (left) and Alyssa Frederick work on Underground Railroad projects. Pentucket Regional High freshmen Jack Donahue (left) and Alyssa Frederick work on Underground Railroad projects. (Photos by WINSLOW TOWNSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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Jack Donahue often passed the house at 239 Main St. in Groveland, but didn’t give it much thought. Then he started researching the Underground Railroad for a high school project.

He discovered that the Lemuel Marden House - like many throughout Essex County - was part of a network of routes and safe houses that helped fugitive slaves flee to freedom in the north in the early 19th century.

“It’s awesome how it’s all local,’’ said Donahue, of West Newbury. “I have driven by the black house thousands of times. It’s just a small little house, but now I can see all the lives saved there.’’

Donahue toured the secret rooms and escape routes of that house and others as part of a project at Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, where he is a freshman.

This year, instead of the traditional ninth-grade history fair - with varying research projects displayed in the cafeteria - the school is presenting an interdisciplinary event on the theme of the Underground Railroad.

“Underground’’ involves the history, fine and performing arts, and video departments and more than 300 students.

“It’s the first time we have done anything like this,’’ said Michael Stevens, chairman of the history department. “We talk about experiential learning and this really is the model.’’

The event Wednesday night is aimed at educating the community, as well as students, about the rich history of the abolitionist movement in the area - specifically in the Pentucket towns of West Newbury, Merrimac, and Groveland.

The evening includes research presentations, performance of an original work by the middle and high school concert bands, spirituals sung by the chorus, and a video created by students.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for these kids,’’ said Michael Smith, director of fine and performing arts. “It tends to give the Underground Railroad more context for the kids, so they don’t relate it to just one discipline, like history.’’

The project began with band director Anthony Beatrice’s desire to have an instrumental piece composed for the middle and high school bands.

“I wanted to somehow get that connected to history in the three towns,’’ he said “But I didn’t know what that was going to be.’’

Then Beatrice, who attended elementary school in Groveland, remembered a teacher mentioning there was a house in town that was part of the Underground Railroad.

He went on the Internet and found a wealth of information about the area’s role in the abolitionist movement, then shared his idea for “Underground’’ with the history and arts departments.

Beatrice received an $1,850 grant from the cultural councils in the three towns to pay for the musical composition, video equipment, and other items.

He then asked Pentucket music teacher and composer David Schumacher to write the music.

Schumacher said the composition, “Station Merrimack,’’ tells the story of the slaves’ journey.

He said the beginning represents a solitary voice, then grows to represent the collective voice of an empowered community yearning for freedom, and ends with the decision to risk the journey north.

And, Schumacher said, “Because I was writing it for kids, it had to be accessible and fun to play and exciting, all those things kids like at that age.’’

According to Katherine Phillips of West Newbury, who plays saxophone in the middle school band, he achieved his goal. “The music is fun to play,’’ she said. “It has different tempos. It starts out slow, and gets faster, and slows down again.’’

Ryan Dymek of West Newbury, a sophomore who plays bass clarinet, added, “The piece is interesting because unlike a lot of pieces there is a story behind it and when you’re playing it, it gets you into the music and you understand what it’s about.’’

The chorus has learned two spirituals, music it doesn’t usually perform. “To get into it, we started to act out a few things,’’ said Eddie Gaudet, a junior from Merrimac. “We couldn’t chain our feet together, so we put our hands on each others shoulders and walked around the stage singing the song. It helps us get into the characters and that is cool.’’

The video is a “Ken Burns-type thing’’ featuring local houses and interviews with local historians, said video teacher Stevin Bartholomew.

History teacher J.C. Honer said many of the students, like Donahue, have “gone above and beyond’’ a typical research project. “It’s more hands-on, and they were able to tailor the projects to things specifically interesting to them,’’ he said. For example, Alyssa Frederick, a freshman from Groveland, likes to quilt, so is making a quilt like those displayed along the Railroad as codes.

“For the most part, it’s been unprompted and they have found resources themselves,’’ said Honer. “They have really taken ownership of it and, as a teacher, watching that is really exciting.’’

“Underground’’ is being presented 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Pentucket Regional High School, 24 Main St., West Newbury. Snow date is Dec. 6, 6:30 p.m. It is open to the public and free. Visit www.pentucketunderground.com.

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