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How a New TV Show Recreates the Underground Railroad and Slave Experience

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How 'Underground' used a Louisiana plantation and museum to tell the personal stories of slavery

Set to an energetic soundtrack featuring the music of Kanye West and John Legend, the new WGN show Underground, which follows a group of slaves on the Macon Plantation escaping their plight through the Underground Railroad, already offers a new spin on the slave narrative. But while the music may be aimed at contemporary listeners, the show’s fidelity to history and the reality of the slave experience is grounded in extensive research and recreations of period plantations.

Despite moving shooting for the show from Georgia, where the fictional story takes place, to Louisiana, the architecture of slave dwellings and the Underground Railroad was faithfully reproduced by location scouts, set designers, and producers. It also shines a spotlight on preserved Southern slave dwellings. Often cleared away from historic plantations by landowners for agricultural or aesthetic reasons, the tragic loss of these cabins and shacks over the decades has erased part of of the vital and painful history of this period.

Jimi Woods, a location manager, was hired by producer Mark McNair to recreate a 1857 Georgia plantation in Louisiana. Born on the outskirts of New Orleans, Woods has worked on numerous films and shows set in his home state, including True Blood ("I helped when they needed swamplands or places to stumble upon pentagrams"), so he was a smart pick for the show, developed by co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski.

For many people, plantation homes recall scenes from Gone With The Wind, an accurate association, but only for certain regions. In much of Louisiana, the tropical climate led to more Caribbean-style dwellings, with extensive windows, a wraparound porch on the second floor, and a lower floor wrapped in bricks, a cellar of sorts that cooled the home (it’s ill-advised to dig into swampy Louisiana soil). These homes of Creole plantation owners are plentiful, but Woods needed something more classic, a Greek Revival building that recalled the show’s Macon, Georgia setting.

His solution was Felicity Plantation, in Vacherie, Louisiana, which had been used for numerous film shoots and shows, including Skeleton Key and All The King’s Men. Built in a more classical style, the building has a unique history and a sibling next door, St. Joseph Plantation. Both were purchased by 19th century planter Valcour Aime, known as the Louis XIV of Louisiana, who developed a process to granulate sugar. One of the South’s wealthiest men before the war, he built a grand home later named Le Petite Versailles that burned down in 1920. The two sister buildings erected near his opulent home were purchased as gifts for his daughters.

Despite its unique pedigree, Felicity required alterations to restore it to pre-war condition. Luckily, the film-friendly former sugarcane plantation had no full-time residents, so the crew could basically take over the home for weeks and months at a time. Extensive cosmetic work was done to the home’s facade to get the building in character for weeks of shooting. Woods used drawings of Le Petite Versailles and its extravagant decorations as a guide when remodeling the living quarters and interiors of the big house. The crew dug gardens, erected a staircase, and added wood shingles to the metal roofs on the outbuildings on the properties. They even created a fake cotton field (the crop doesn’t do well in the tropical setting of Louisiana), gluing cotton to plants in a small 50-by-50 foot section of a field, then using computer imaging to copy and tile the fake field, creating the impression of a massive plantation.

But Underground, first and foremost, is about the slaves and the stories of their lives, so Woods made extra effort to recreate slave dwellings and their experiences on, and escaping from, the plantation. The crew scouted out nearby Colonial homes in St. Francisville, and pre-Civil War railroad tracks that could stand-in during scenes of the slaves escaping northward. The hiding places secretly constructed in the homes of Abolitionists on the Underground Railroad were recreated on a Baton Rouge soundstage, so crews could surround the space with cameras and create a more claustrophobic atmosphere on camera. During research, Woods discovered the story of an Irish immigrant from nearby Jackson who set up his own branch of the Underground Railroad, and would help shuttle escaped slaves all the way to Canada.

Woods’ most important find, however, may have been the Rural Life Museum, an agricultural research center and series of preserved slave dwellings on a 40-acre site operated by Louisiana State University (LSU). According to David Floyd, the museum’s director, the buildings on site were remnants of the larger Burden Plantation, and when the institution was founded in the ‘70s, became the main exhibits at one of the first places solely dedicated to the preservation, study, and interpretation of the lifestyles of the African-Americans who worked and lived on these plantations.

"It was a treasure trove," says Woods. "We really created the entire fictional plantation with two locations, Felicity and Rural Life. The grounds at LSU even had swamps nearby and trails to film scenes on horseback."

The shacks and modest structures that encompass the Rural Museum run counter to the normal plantation preservation situation found throughout the south, which prizes (and preserves) the big house over often flimsy slave dwellings. The study of these sites offers an important addition to the historical record, which mostly consists of diaries and newspaper accounts written by white men. There sadly isn't much first-person work to draw from, since slaves didn’t write and passed down their history orally. It wasn't until a WPA Slave Narratives project in the ‘30s interviewed former slaves that the personal stories of this chapter of American history were ever systematically recorded.

"The Rural Museum was founded in the ‘70s, when historians focused on the Great Events theory of history," says Floyd. "Slavery was viewed through the lens of the Dred Scott decision or the Missouri compromise, not the lifestyles or stories of those who actually lived through slavery. That was considered too mundane; and to be fair, they felt the same way about white folks, too."

Floyd believes it’s vital that these stories become intertwined with the larger history of the United States before the Civil War. Along with other preservation projects, such as the Slave Dwelling Project, the Rural Museum has helped improve scholarship and understanding of slave's lives, which helps make a show such as Underground that much more accurate. According to Floyd, the show was 99 percent accurate (some of the dancing was updated to reflect current styles). The attention to detail has Woods feel like his historical knowledge is being put to an even more resonant and relevant use.

"For me it wasn’t a typical slave [narrative], like Roots; this was different," he says. "This is about shining a spotlight on those whose stories weren't always told. There’s more than the soldier’s point of view from this period of the North-versus-South struggle."