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The Road to Freedom:
Using the WWW to
Teach About Slavery

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For black slaves in America, the road to freedom was a long and difficult one. This week, Education World observes Black History Month by providing activities to help your students trace that journey and to learn about some of the heroes who paved the way to freedom. Included: Activities for teaching about slavery across the grades and the curriculum.

Road to Freedom On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered that, as of January 1, 1863, "all persons held as slaveshenceforward shall be free." Those historic words, however, marked neither the beginning nor the end of efforts to end slavery in the United States. In fact, the beginnings of the abolitionist movement can be found 100 years earlier "aboard" the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was, of course, not a railroad at all. It was simply a network of Americans, both black and white, dedicated to destroying the institution of slavery by helping individual slaves escape to freedom. The story of the Underground Railroad is replete with danger and drama, tragedy and triumph, evil slave hunters and unsung heroes. What child could resist it?

In 1990, Congress charged the National Park Service with the task of developing ways to commemorate and interpret the Underground Railroad. Today, the Park Service Web site provides the most complete and accurate source of information about the Underground Railroad. Before beginning your study of slavery, abolition, and the Underground Railroad, you might want to read Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad. This section of the Park Service Web site provides background information about the origins of slavery to the Civil War. Then, both you and your students will want to visit Aboard the Underground Railroad. This section of the site includes a map of several Underground Railroad routes, a bibliography, and a great deal of historical information.

Finally, you're ready to begin your trip. The activities below will help your students better understand the issue of slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the Underground Railroad. Though most appropriate for students in grade 4 and above, many of the activities can be adapted for younger students. So

ALL ABOARD!

Geography -- follow the trail. Invite students to read historian Anthony Cohen's account of the Underground Railroad, Walk to Canada: The Revival. Then provide students with a map of the United States (alternate outline map) and ask them to trace the route of the Underground Railroad from Alabama to Canada. Encourage students to map some additional routes slaves from other states might have used.

Science -- find the North Star. Explain to students that slaves traveled the Underground Railroad at night, guided by Polaris, the North Star. Then ask them to go to Ursa Minor to locate and read about the North Star. Encourage students to ask an adult family member to help them locate the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and Polaris in the night sky.

Cross-curricular project -- "Escape to Freedom." Encourage students to complete the Runaway Slave Project [archived copy]. The site includes many links to Underground Railroad routes and a rubric for evaluating students' performance.

History -- make a timeline. Ask students to read from a variety of resources about the history of slavery or to take the Think Quest Stamp on Black History Tour from Indentured Servants and Slavery to the Civil War. Then have them create a timeline of the most important events.

Language arts -- write a definition. Encourage students to write a definition for the word slavery. Before or after this activity, share Slavery Is... by Mr. Greenberg's 4th Grade Class.

Art -- draw a political cartoon. Invite students to investigate the political cartoons at News Art. Then ask them to create their own cartoons about slavery. Make sure students can explain the message behind their drawings.

Thinking skills -- "You Be the Judge." Encourage students to imagine that they are judges at The Amistad Trials and ask them to write a decision about the case.

Writing -- write a biography. Invite students to go to Abolition, then to scroll down to Abolitionist Appeal to Women and to read the poem. Discuss with students whether or not they agree that women would have been more sympathetic than men to the slaves' plight. Encourage them to defend their positions. Then ask students to research one of the female abolitionists listed below and write a biography about her.

  • Susan Brownell Anthony (a/k/a Susan Anthony, Susan B. Anthony)
  • Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell (a/k/a Antoinette Blackwell)
  • Maria Weston Chapman (a/k/a Maria Chapman)
  • Lydia Maria Francis Child (a/k/a Lydia Child, Lydia Maria Child)
  • Elizabeth Leslie Rous Comstock (a/k/a Elizabeth Comstock)
  • Abigail Kelley Foster (a/k/a Abigail Foster)
  • Abigail Hopper Gibbons (a/k/a Abigail Gibbons)
  • Josephine Sophia White Griffing (a/k/a Josephine Griffing)
  • Angelina Emily Grimk (a/k/a Angelina Grimk)
  • Sarah Moore Grimk (a/k/a Sarah Grimk)
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (a/k/a Frances Harper, Frances Watkins Harper, Frances W. Harper)
  • Julia Ward Howe (a/k/a Julia Howe)
  • Lucretia Coffin Mott (a/k/a Lucretia Mott)
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a/k/a Elizabeth Stanton)
  • Lucy Stone
  • Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe (a/k/a Harriet Beecher Stowe)
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Frances Wright

    Art -- create a flag. Ask students to study the symbols on the flags at Historical Flags. Then have them design a flag for the Underground Railroad.

    Writing -- write a diary entry. Ask students to read Slave Narratives, imagine that they are slaves, and write a diary entry about their experiences.

    Speech -- stage a debate. Ask students to read the Reparations Bill for the African Slaves in the United States, which called for the forfeiture of Confederate land to former slaves. Ask students to use online and library resources to further research the issue, then have them stage a debate about the bill. Encourage students to conduct the debate as though they were members of the Pennsylvania legislature considering the bill's passage.

    Fun and games -- solve a puzzle. Explain to students that Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, was born at Stratford Hall Plantation in Virginia. Invite students to take a tour of the house.

    Language arts -- write a poem. Encourage students to read the Abolitionist Hymn and then write a poem or hymn about what freedom means to them.

    History -- take a quiz. Have students visit The Internet African American History Challenge, read the profiles of some important 19th Century African Americans, and take the Internet African American History Challenge.

    SLAVERY TEACHING RESOURCES ON THE WWW

    The Underground Railroad
    In this site from National Geographic, retrace the perilous route slaves took on the Underground Railroad, under the protective mantle of Harriet Tubman. Face the choices they had to make -- and the consequences. Additional information in this feature includes a timeline, map, background on the heroes and heroines of the road to freedom, and a wealth of lesson plans with historical background and facts that pay tribute to this astonishing network of helping hands from the last century.

    Child of the Underground Railroad
    Classroom activities to accompany "Malinda Paris - A Memorial," the story of a girl who traveled on the Underground Railroad.

    Slavery Resources Guide
    This guide from the Libary of Congress provides examples of materials related to slavery.

    The Underground Railroad Freedom Center
    The Center is currently developing a curriculum for grades 6 through 8, which will integrate the disciplines of history, human relations, and social activism.

    Stamp on Black History From Think Quest
    This site includes a great deal of information and many valuable activities for students at all levels. Although not strictly about slavery, it is one of the best sites available. It shouldn't be missed.

    LINKS TO ADDITIONAL WEBSITES OF INTEREST

    Alabama Archives: Points of View of Former Slaves

    The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass

    Slavery in Pennsylvania
    Lists of Pennsylvania slaves and slave owners, and additional information that provides insight into the lives of slaves.

    The War for State's Rights
    Interesting insights into the southern view of slavery and the Civil War.

    Article by Linda Starr
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2010 Education World

    RELATE ARTICLES FROM EDUCATION WORLD

    Black History Month Archive

    Originally published 02/22/1999
    Last updated 12/01/2010

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