Matt Driscoll

Underground Railroad was no game to slaves. Why’s it in the name of Tacoma escape room?

My first reaction was disbelief.

I did a double take, then a few more takes for good measure.

I didn’t understand.

The advertisement in front of me — promoting a Freighthouse Square escape room — had to be a mistake of some sort, I thought. It couldn’t be. It wouldn’t be.

There was just no way — no way — someone could have signed off on such an idea.

“Escape to the Underground Railroad and solve the clues,” the ad read, above a photo of Abraham Lincoln at what appears to be a Civil War camp.

So … an Underground Railroad-themed escape room then?

You know, the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape the brutality of America’s original sin?

“Get through six mazed out rooms so the Confederate side don’t find you,” the ad continues, despite the remarkable absurdity of it all. “Advance to the next level without being killed in the battle. Return to your loved ones once more. The Union is waiting for you.”

So, yes, an Underground Railroad-themed escape room then — albeit it one somehow muddled with the notion that this Underground Railroad wasn’t about slavery at all.

The escape room’s proprietors, owner Gina Urban and chief operating officer Robin Clark, told me that, for the purpose of fun and games, their Underground Railroad room is about the Civil War and helping Union soldiers escape the Confederacy. That gives it little-to-no footing in historical reality, not that they see it that way.

After a copyright conundrum foiled their original plan for the escape room, they essentially picked the name at random, they explained, with zero thought about the ramifications. There’s “no mention” of slavery in the escape room’s story line, they pointed out.

Reading between the lines, their primary objective, it seems, was simply finding a name that wouldn’t get them sued.

Needless to say, there’s a whole lot to unpack there, and plenty of it is amazingly dumb.

The ads in question, at least last week, were all over Freighthouse Square. There were posters on bulletin boards, and handbills distributed on tables throughout the food court. They promised fun for birthday parties, weddings and even team-building exercises — which would have felt like potential Dave Chappelle fodder if it wasn’t so real.

The advertisements were brought to my attention by an observant reader.

“This particular theme appears to trivialize the historical context and purpose of the Underground Railroad,” the reader explained, fearing that it minimized “the realities of the literal life and death circumstances faced by the slaves who predominantly used it.”

This, of course, shouldn’t really need to be said.

Asked whether it’s possible to separate slavery from the Underground Railroad, Columbia University history professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner, who has written extensively on the subject, including 2015’s “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” provided a straightforward answer.

“No,” he told The News Tribune via email, adding that the theme felt “offensive” to him.

“Frankly, I don’t know what to say,” Foner said, sounding nearly as befuddled as me. “Ask your average man or woman on the street about the Underground Railroad. If they have heard of it, they undoubtedly associate it with fugitive slaves, not Union soldiers in the Civil War.”

Lyle Quasim, chair of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective for the last 35 years, put things more bluntly. He described the escape room’s name as “just one more damn thing for black people to have to navigate around.

It’s hard not to agree.

All of that is another way of saying that the Underground Railroad — and the circumstances of American slavery that made it necessary — is not something to glamorize, minimize or, certainly, plan a birthday party or team-building exercise around. Despite the owners’ best efforts, there is no alternative definition of what the Underground Railroad was or the purpose it served.

Those are the facts, and you can’t re-brand it.

Yet, here we are — in the year 2019.

At this point, I’m going to pause for a moment, for everyone’s sake. I realize this column — about a Tacoma business promoting an Underground Railroad-themed good time — is going to evoke strong emotions, and for good reason. There’s no avoiding it.

However, after spending a week discussing the situation with Urban and Clark, I’m left as confounded as I started, not to mention incredibly discouraged and disheartened.

The situation, for all its unquestionable stupidity, seems destined to pit familiar foes.

On one side, there will be those who, rightfully, view the escape room’s decision as remarkably tone-deaf and problematic. On the other side, there will be those who, like Urban and Clark, view the critiques as political correctness run amok, resulting in an unjust attempt to stoke racial discord.

To be clear, that’s not an equivalency. The first argument has merit. The second argument does not.

Still, I can’t help but be left with the sinking feeling that this — ultimately— will serve as yet another example of just how broken our discourse is regarding matters of race. I’ve seen this movie enough times to know the unsatisfying options that will emerge. There will be calls to“cancel” the Freighthouse Square escape room, and there will undoubtedly be those who rally to the escape room’s defense, now more defiant than ever to ignore the validity of the critiques.

Again, here we are — in the year 2019.

There simply has to be a better way.

When I relayed the concerns I’d received and added my own, Clark wasn’t confrontational or angry. Instead, he was open to discussing the matter — even though he clearly didn’t have to.

Clark’s response, however, left plenty to be desired.

“Everyone who has gone through it has had fun,” Clark offered, pushing back when I suggested the name was, just maybe, “poorly thought out.”

Business is good, Clark said. In total, Escape Freighthouse Station operates three escape rooms, he explained, and the Underground Railroad room averages 10 to 15 groups every weekend.

“It’s just a theme of an escape room,” Clark contended. “It’s not promoting slavery. It’s not promoting segregation.”

OK then.

If I was seeking closure in this, it has yet to arrive. Urban and Clark are sticking by the name, remaining convinced that they’re being unfairly attacked. Meanwhile, I’m left bracing for the predictable and likely fruitless squabble that we all know comes next.

“It’s a part of history,” Clark told me of the Underground Railroad. “It’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Actually, come to think about it, that’s one thing we can agree on.

I just wish there was more, and that we had a better way to get there.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.