Teach PA History
There Were Many Paths to Freedom
Equipment & Supplies
  • Pencils, paper and note cards. Costumes for role-playing are optional.

Note: Download Student Worksheets PDF file and Primary Source PDF file before beginning.

Begin by asking students for single words that would describe what they know about the Underground Railroad. They might say things such as secret, dangerous, transportation, freedom. Then ask them how they think the Underground Railroad operated. While someone might say, it was beneath the ground in a tunnel from the southern slave holding states all the way to the northern states, others might say that it was an organized, but secret way to get fugitive slaves to freedom in the North. Tell the students that a lot of stereotypes (a simplified view of something that is held in common by many people) have emerged about what the Underground Railroad was, and how it operated. Because they are simplified ideas, they are incomplete.

Let the students know that a main objective of this lesson is to help them see through the stereotypes and gain a more accurate view of how fugitive slaves traveled on the Underground Railroad. Then, they will learn about how the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee operated through a role-playing activity that will involve reading and studying some fugitive slave narratives written by the Chairman of the Vigilance Committee, William Still. Finally they will read some newspaper accounts of fugitives living in the North who were either recaptured years after they had escaped, or were attacked by kidnappers who wanted to take them to the South where they could be sold as slaves.


Have students view Primary Source #1: Underground Railroad Illustration: The Levi Coffin Station. Ask students to carefully examine the illustration and then to complete the Student Worksheet #1: Interpreting an Illustration. Once this is done, use their answers as the basis for a class discussion of the illustration. After the answers are discussed, let students know that there was a lot more to the Underground Railroad than what is shown in this illustration.

Write these five common stereotypes on the chalkboard

Stereotype #1: Fugitive slaves were always escorted from station to station on the Underground Railroad.

Stereotype #2: Those who helped the Fugitive Slaves were exclusively White.

Stereotype #3: The Underground Railroad only operated hidden from the watchful eyes of the authorities.

Stereotype #4: Fugitive slaves were safe when they got to a northern state such as Pennsylvania.

Stereotype #5: There was very little variety in the ways that fugitives traveled on the Underground Railroad.

Explain that the rest of the work that they will do on the Underground Railroad in this lesson will involve the use of primary sources to uncover the whole truth about the Underground Railroad. As they examine the fugitive slave narratives recorded by William Still, the Chairman of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, they will be able to prove that the five statements above really are stereotypes.

Distribute three copies of Student Worksheet #2 : "Searching for Information in Primary Sources" to each student along with marker Primary Source #2, marker Primary Source #3, and marker Primary Source #4. Go over the direction to the worksheet with the class and allow time for them to complete the three sheets. They will use this information to help them prepare for the role-playing activity. The most important preparation, however, is a careful reading of the three narratives (William and Ellen Craft, Henry Box Brown, and the four arrivals on May 31, 1856).

Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Again, the students are given specific directions on the top of Student Worksheet #3: Philadelphia Vigilance Committee: Role Playing. Basically, the students in each group should select one of the characters from the narratives to role-play in a meeting of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. When one person is role-playing a fugitive slave, the other students in the group will act as the members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee who are interviewing the fugitive slave. Everyone involved must be familiar with the story of each fugitive slave appearing before the Vigilance Committee so they can ask appropriate questions to elicit the facts of the story.

When this task is done, direct student attention to the problem faced by fugitive slaves who chose to stay in a northern state, and the danger facing Free Blacks who could be targeted as fair game by kidnappers who knew they could sell them into slavery if they got them into a southern state.

Distribute copies of marker Source #4: Pittsburgh Gazette and marker Source #5: The Mystery Newspaper Accounts, two newspaper accounts of Blacks living in the North who were attacked by slave catchers long after they arrived in the North. Give students a copy of Student Worksheet #4: Analysis of Two Newspaper Accounts and ask them to analyze the two accounts by drawing conclusions about the two cases. Then distribute Student Worksheet #5: Finishing Martin R. Delany's Poem and ask them to empathize with Delany. After they try to imagine what Delany was feeling, assign their task of creating a title for the poem and writing a second verse.

As the final activity of this lesson on the Underground Railroad, remind students of five common stereotypes about the Underground Railroad that the teacher initially put on the chalkboard. These stereotypes also are listed on the culminating worksheet, Student Worksheet #5: Conclusions About the Underground Railroad. All of the information students have learned by reading the fugitive slave narratives recorded by William Still, and doing the role-playing activity should prepare them to complete this worksheet. With its completion, the teacher will have proof that the students understood what they read, and were able to synthesize the information.

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