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EIU Teaching with Primary Sources

Underground Railroad: A Path to Freedom

Underground Railroad Header

Introduction | Primary Sources and Analysis Tools
Library of Congress Resources | Primary Source Set

Choose a link below to access printable PDF versions of these materials including additional information, color images and citations.
Underground Railroad: A Path to Freedom Resource Booklet 
Primary Source Set

Primary Sources and Analysis Tools

This page contains information about incorporating primary sources into learning activities and links to primary source analysis tools. Examples of primary sources relative to our topic are included in the printable version of the resource booklet and primary source set above. You are also encouraged to visit the Library of Congress Resources page above to locate collections, exhibits and more sources of digitized primary sources. Of course, you should always go to and conduct your own search for primary sources that you can use in your classroom! If you need assistance feel free to contact the EIUTPS staff or use the Library of Congress "Ask A Librarian" links.


Why teach with photographs?
Photographs are powerful tools that can activate a student’s background knowledge on a particular person, place or event and spark an interest to learn more. Teachers may effectively use photographs to present historical events, people and places in a personal way that students can connect with. The idea that photographs never lie has a long history, with many debates resting on photographic evidence. Some argue that photographs can indeed lie -- they can be doctored, staged, or faked in many ways. There is much more to a photo than the subject in the center. People, places, things and conditions in a photograph may offer a more complete view than what we see in the expression of the subject. 

Connecting to our topic of the Underground Railroad.
There is much more to a photo than the subject in the center. People, places, things and conditions in a photograph may offer a more complete view than what we see in the expression of the subject. The Library of Congress has images of slaves, abolitionists and stations on the Underground Railroad. Each image tells a different story or may invoke a different emotion. Using a photo analysis sheet, students can take a closer look at these images and form opinions about the “big picture”.  Students may discover details that were missed at first glance.  Backgrounds, faces of children, environment and more that we see in these pictures help to share a graphic story of paths to freedom.

Analysis Sheets: The More You Look Photo Analysis Sheet | ABC Photo Analysis | Put Yourself in the Picture |

Posters and Broadsides

Why teach with posters and broadsides?
Propaganda is a tool used as a weapon freely during war. Famous images and slogans that originated on posters of past wars are still recognized today.  Some of the same techniques that were used to invoke emotion are used today in advertisements, something students will be able to understand.  Posters attract our attention and often immediately appeal to some type of emotional reaction.

When we look at posters as historical documents, we must consider what the poster implies. In less than a single sentence, and on occasion with no words at all, posters are highly selective in the way that they depict the world. The way that a group, race, class or gender is portrayed in a poster can be very biased or skewed to fit the needs of the creator or to raise the desired reaction from viewers. 

Connecting to our topic of the Underground Railroad.
Posters were used to notify the public about runaway slaves and activities of those helping slaves escape. When you initially view a poster, your eyes typically go to the image. Do these images accurately convey the intended message of the poster? Text offers details to support the cause of the creator of the poster. Some posters have few words while others provide detailed statistics or explanations. In the posters for runaway slaves the images are vivid to attract and engage readers to help locate escapees.
Analysis Sheets: Poster Analysis Sheet


Why teach with documents?
Diaries, journals, telegrams, and other written documents provide students with evidence of daily life during other time periods. Primary source documents include letters, journals, records or diaries that may be handwritten or typed, published or private. Documents can provide personal information about major historical events or individuals, as well as day to day life while allowing students to analyze fact versus opinion or find evidence or data not located in textbooks. These items record people’s every day lives; event and travel ticket stubs, brochures, programs, flyers and posters. These documents are printed objects intended for one time use. They tell us a great deal about the personality of a group at a particular point in time.

Connecting to our topic of the Underground Railroad.
As with anything we read, we use our foundation of knowledge and decoding skills to comprehend new concepts. By putting the pieces together we are able to understand more than the words visible on a document. Using the Document Analysis sheet students will consider the physical characteristics of a document and what they reveal about the author. Students study the document to gain an understanding of the use of terminology, words that are crossed out or added and specific phrases or terms used. The documents created throughout the use of the Underground Railroad introduce us to diverse perspectives and opinions about escaping slaves and their experiences. 

Analysis Sheets: Document Analysis Sheet


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