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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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