They described a perennially broke, ascetically disciplined bachelor who spent nearly all his time mentoring youths. Born Oliver Taylor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1948, Kamau Sababu Kambui moved to North Minneapolis in the early nineteen-eighties, saying little about his previous endeavors but quickly making friends. “He was fine,” Jackie, a friend of Crutchfield’s, said. Valerie, a late-life girlfriend, added, “Kamau belonged to the community.”
A teetotalling vegetarian with an unlikely passion for guns, he was rarely found in the tiny apartment where he used to store books in the oven. Instead, he ice-fished, rock climbed, quarterbacked, roller-skated, and honed his marksmanship. Yamro Fields, the second-born of his seven children, compared him to Annie Oakley.
Kambui lectured on wild edibles and folk medicine; organized storytelling festivals and kayaking expeditions; intervened, often at the request of mothers, in the lives of wayward boys; and took city kids to the wilderness as an instructor for Outward Bound. “He had a real desire to lift up black boys and black girls,” Crutchfield said. “You could drop him off with two hundred kids and some duct tape and some dental floss, and they’d have a great time.”
The defining adventure of his own youth was a radical experiment in black self-determination. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Kambui pledged allegiance to a Malcolm X-inspired secessionist movement called the Republic of New Afrika. The R.N.A. declared independence from the United States in March, 1968, laying claim to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Its founders argued that these states were New Afrikan territory, earned through labor and long fought for by leaders like “our Generals Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman.” Their slogan was “Free the Land!”
In 1971, Kambui left college and moved to Jackson, Mississippi. He canvassed farmers across the Delta for the R.N.A., seeking support for a secessionist plebiscite. In a memoir, the would-be nation’s then president describes “pleasant, conscientious Kamau” as the leader of the organizing effort. He also notes the young man’s remarkable gun collection, which soon came to the attention of federal authorities. Amid a violent crackdown on the R.N.A., Kambui was arrested for buying a firearm under his not-yet-legally-adopted name. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Kambui remained a lifelong Afrocentrist, always reading and occasionally susceptible to outlandish theories about the ancient Egyptians. (One friend said that he believed Pharaoh Tutankhamun died in a glider accident.) Today, some would likely call him a “hotep,” a put-down for esoterically inclined, masculinity-obsessed black men. But the figure he most revered was Harriet Tubman. He kept a jar of earth from her grave.
Kambui often claimed that a recurring dream about Tubman had inspired the Underground Railroad Reënactment, and that he had organized the first simulation after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. The first U.G.R.R. I can confirm, however, took place in 1987, and may have drawn as much from “Go Down, Moses”—a 1963 episode of the historical anthology series “The Great Adventure,” starring Ruby Dee as Tubman—as from any dream. After simulations, Kambui sometimes screened the episode, which is a near-blueprint of the Kambui Initiative’s reënactments. Characters whisper “friend of a friend,” hide in a Quaker’s crawl space, smuggle a baby through a bog, and flee chasers in a climactic river crossing.
Early U.G.R.R.s were rudimentary. Sometimes Kambui would run the simulation as a one-man show; in other instances, slave catchers gave chase with firecrackers and squirt guns. At first, Kambui offered simulations through black youth-leadership programs, but around 1990 he took a job at Wilder Forest, then a nonprofit camp and retreat center. Wilder came with staff, land, activist inclinations, and thousands of yearly visitors; in the busy season, Kambui ran two or more reënactments a week.
He began to incorporate horses, dogs, large casts of conductors, and, in one instance, a rented paddle steamer, which he transformed into a slave ship by blacking out the windows and carpeting the lower deck in straw. It was the second part of a three-day simulation for sixty black teens, which began at an ersatz African village, continued with real farm labor and a night escape, and ended with a mind trick: Kambui took participants to breakfast at a local restaurant, where, by prearrangement, white staff members denied them service.
“It was pure gold,” Karen McKinney, who played a slave trader on the boat, told me. Now a scholar of Biblical studies, and a longtime advocate of experiential learning, McKinney believes that, with the right instructor, “risky” simulations can be pedagogically invaluable.
“Kamau was an action figure,” Melvin Carter III told me. Once among McKinney’s captives, and now St. Paul’s first African-American mayor, he remembers the experience as a crucial life lesson. When Carter and three friends staged a “rebellion,” refusing to stand for a slave auction, Kambui picked one of them up and threw him into the St. Croix River. Carter wrote down what he said next: “Fellas, I appreciate your resolve. But look around you. The women, children, and old folks you all love will need men like you to be strong enough to suffer whatever it takes to be around when they need protection. Don’t just take yourself out of the game for nothing.”
In Paul Beatty’s satirical novel “The Sellout,” the protagonist’s father is a practitioner of “Liberation Psychology,” who cultivates his son’s race consciousness through a variety of cruel, Pavlovian experiments. (The punch line is that his son grows up to own a slave and reëstablish segregation in modern California, as a way to foster black solidarity.) With similar zeal, Kambui fixated on the contemporary notion that black adolescents faced a crisis of character. Amid the racist law-and-order panic of the nineteen-nineties, when Minneapolis was briefly known as “Murderapolis,” he volunteered with a Twin Cities group of black men called Save Our Sons (S.O.S.), which mentored local boys thought to have criminal proclivities. The founder was Melvin Carter, Jr., a St. Paul police sergeant and the father of the current mayor. U.G.R.R.s were “one of the keys to recapturing our youth,” Carter told me when we spoke at Golden Thyme. “You get these inner-city tough kids up in the woods and they cry like babies.”