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All Aboard! Escaping Slavery on the Underground Railroad

Lesson Overview


Students will use critical thinking skills and applications to understand the strains of slavery and the risks associated with escape to freedom via the underground railroad through an in depth primary source analysis. The students will use two primary sources to analyze the escape of a fugitive slave. Students will then apply their knowledge gained to complete related extension activities.

Grade Range:



After completing the activity, students will be able to

  • Perform a basic primary source analysis of a historic photograph.

  • Interpret informational text using grade level reading strategies.

  • List some of the risks associated with the Underground Railroad.

  • Apply reading and writing skills within the content area.

Time Required:

Three class periods of 45 minutes.


Social Studies


African American History, Maps


National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860, Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877



Illinois Learning Standards:

Fine Arts:
27.A-Analyze how the arts function in history, society and everyday life.

Language Arts:
1.A-Apply word analysis and vocabulary skills to comprehend selections.
1.C-Comprehend a broad range of reading materials.
3.C-Communicate ideas in writing to accomplish a variety of purposes.
4.A-Listen effectively in formal and informal situations.
5.A-Locate, organize and use information from various sources to answer questions, solve problems and communicate ideas.
5.B-Students who meet the standard can analyze and evaluate information acquired from various sources.
5.C-Students who meet the standard can apply acquired information, concepts and ideas to communicate in a variety of formats.

Social Studies:
16.A-Apply the skills of historical analysis and interpretation.
16.D-Understand Illinois, United States and world social history.
17.D-Understand the historical significance of geography.
18.B-Understand the roles and interactions of individuals and groups in society.

6.C-Compute and estimate using mental mathematics, paper-and-pencil methods, calculators and computers.
7.B-Estimate measurements and determine acceptable levels of accuracy. 



Analysis Tools:

Put Yourself in the Picture Analysis (PDF page 5)


Barefoot Escape on the Underground Railroad by P.D. Edwards

Library of Congress Items:

Title of Source: Tom-Runaway Slave


Title of Source: Reynolds's political map of the United States, designed to exhibit the comparative area of the free and slaves states and the territory open to slavery or freedom by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.


Title of Source: In the Swamp



Begin lesson by listing some keywords: Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, slavery, Abraham Lincoln, and abolition. Have students discuss what they have already learned. 


Display the LOC Reynolds Map 


Review and discuss the problems that were facing the country at the time. 


Read aloud the story from the book Barefoot Escape on the Underground Railroad to the students. 


After reading tell students that this is a fictional story about a fugitive slaves escape route, but what he experienced is true of what many slaves felt on their path to freedom. 


Discuss the time of day when he traveled and how the animals in the woods helped him. 


Discuss some of the things that his fugitive may be feeling, seeing, hearing, etc on the trip. 


Talk with the students about how the young man knew it was safe to approach the house. 


Discuss what a primary source is and how they help us understand history. 


Show the students the primary source In the Swamp uncovering it little by little. Ask students to note the things that they see as each part is revealed. 


Hand out a copy of the Put Yourself in the Picture analysis. (Page 5 of PDF)


Have students fill in the form using their sensory perceptions. 


After all students have had a chance to finish, discuss their answers. 


Show reward poster and read through it together. 


Ask students some of the following questions:

  • Describe this document.

  • What message is being sent?

  • How does this poster make you feel?

  • Does anything surprise you?

  • Who do you think made this and why?

  • What does the creator of the poster hope that people who see the poster will do?

  • What can you learn from this poster/advertisement? 


Ask students to summarize what they learned today and why it is important. Review the lesson objectives with the students. 


Re-teach or clarify if needed. 



Teacher will evaluate students' understanding through their participation in the oral discussion. The completed analysis form will be assessed for completeness and amount of insight. 


Extension Activities Packet is included in PDF 

1. Have students pretend they are a runaway slave. They will pick a slave state location from which they have escaped; they will plan their route by sketching a map showing travel from the will end in a free state. Students will answer these questions.

  • Most slaves ran from 10 to 30 miles a day, if they were healthy and strong. How fast can you walk? Figure out the average miles that you're going to be able to cover each day. 

  • Decide when to travel, day or night.

  • What time of the year will you journey?

  • Will you use a disguise?

  • Where will you stop to rest?

  • What if you can't swim?

  • What will happen if you get sick?

  • What if you were a child, a pregnant woman, alone, an injured man or an older person? Do these factors make a difference?

2. Create a set of secret codes that could help other slaves on their journey to freedom. Draw and explain the codes. How will they help others?

3. Use the Safe Place worksheet to decide if a house is safe for runaway slaves to stop.

4. Design a reward poster that could have been made to help find and return slaves to their owners.

5. Think of three to five things you would bring with you as an escaped slaves.

6. Pretend you are a runaway slave who has made it to freedom. Write a letter home to family members describing what happened along the way and any troubles you had. Will you try to convince them to escape on the Underground Railroad? Why or why not? Put your letter in an envelope and write your family's address.

7. Everything about the Underground Railroad had to be a secret so taht those escaping and those helping would not be caught. They used code words to help keep everything secretive. Use the Internet to find out information about some of the passengers, conductors, stations and station masters. Use the information you find to fill in the train cars. Cut out the cars and glue them to the tracks.


Author Credits:

Carolyn Wenz Elementary