PrintTwo to Three Forty-Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • identify the importance of the Underground Railroad to the abolition movement.
  • trace and use the specialized vocabulary of the Underground Railroad.
  • place events related to the abolition of slavery in chronological order.
  • Internet access to research the Underground Railroad
  • Map of the United States
  • Levine, Ellen. If You Traveled the Underground Railroad. Children's Press, 1989.
  • Winter, Jeanette. Follow the Drinking Gourd. Dragonfly Books (1988): p48.
  • Student Handouts: Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House and Bethel AME Church (Handout One); John P. Parker House and John Rankin House (Handout Two) Follow the Drinking Gourd (Handout Three)
Teacher Preparation 
  • The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses, maintained by volunteers from all ethnic groups, which were used by the slaves to escape to freedom. There were courageous actions taken by individuals that allowed slaves to safely reach the north. Along the way many slaves were surprised to find that there was a group of individuals, called Quakers, who were instrumental in guiding them to a new life. Accessing the National Parks Web Site will provide a more comprehensive overview of the routes that were taken.
  • Levine, Ellen. If You Traveled the Underground Railroad. Children's Press, 1989.
  • Winter, Jeanette. Follow the Drinking Gourd. Dragonfly Books (1988): p48.


  1. Anticipatory Set: Ask students if they have ever heard of the "Big Dipper." Also ask students what the connection is between the Big Dipper and the North Star. Explain that, to some people, the Big Dipper was also known as the "Drinking Gourd." The folk song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, was actually a set of directions to help slaves escape to freedom.

  2. Distribute Follow the Drinking Gourd (see Handout Three) to the students. Divide the students into groups of three to four to work on answers to the following questions:

    • How successful would slaves be by just waiting to move around at night?
    • How would they hide out during the day?
    • What effect would the weather or geographical land changes have on how quickly they would move from one location to another?
    • How would the escaping slaves eat?
  3. Once groups have had sufficient time to work on their answers, allow them to make group presentations.

  4. Tell students that the words used when talking about the escape routes formed a specialized secret vocabulary. Make sure students understand the meaning of these terms:

    • The "Underground Railroad" was neither underground nor a railroad. It was a series of routes (paths, roads, trails, waterways) that started in the South, moved through the North or West (and sometimes South) and ended in Canada, the western territories, Mexico or the Caribbean.
    • The "passengers" were those who had escaped their slaveholders and sought freedom.
    • The "conductors" were brave persons, from all ethnic groups, who risked their lives to escort runaways to freedom.
    • The "station masters" risked their own safety and their homes to provide shelter for the runaways.
  5. To make sure that students have sufficient background to continue, ask students to discuss the following questions briefly:

    • Why was the Civil War fought?
    • What were some of the effects of slavery on the country and on the people in the country?
    • Where did the funds come from to help the slaves? (volunteers, churches, Quakers, abolitionists)
    • How did the slaves gain access to safe houses? (code words)
  6. Read If You Traveled the Underground Railroad. Discuss the questions again allowing students to add information gained from reading the book.

  7. If you cannot obtain If You Traveled the Underground Railroad, you might prefer to use the information available on the National Parks Service's Web site related to Underground Railroad sites. Look at Handouts One and Two and answer the following questions:

    • Where was this site on the Underground Railroad?
    • Why did runaways still have to escape out of the North and into Canada once they managed to get out of the South?
    • What was the background of the people at the site you read about?
    • Was there any risk to the stationmasters at this site?
  8. Arrangethe students into three groups. Explain that each group will reenact the escape to freedom. One group will have no information, and they will travel on their own without assistance while being chased by bounty hunters and their owners. The second group will have information about following the North Star and travelling at night while being chased by the bounty hunters and their owners. The third group will have the same information and problems of the second group, but will use code words at safe houses. Once this reenactment has been completed, ask the students to describe the differences. Ask students:

    • Which was more difficult and why?
    • What did the volunteers have to do with the Underground Railroad?
    • Would the Underground Railroad have worked without the volunteers?
    • Do you think they were paid?
    • Why did they do this?
  9. Students should develop the skill of having a general sense of time without actually knowing the dates of each event. Place these or other major events that led to or had an impact on the Civil War on the chalkboard. Include slavery, the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, the abolition movement, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. Ask students to put these events in chronological order.


Working in groups of two, students will share with each other the importance of the volunteers who "worked" on the Underground Railroad. Partner A will discuss the work and risks of the "conductor" and Partner B will discuss the work and risks of the "station master." Students will write a three-paragraph essay on the Underground Railroad. The first paragraph will explain its purpose and routes. The second paragraph will discuss the special vocabulary developed because of the Underground Railroad. The third paragraph will discuss the risks to the parties involved in the Underground Railroad. Students will develop a timeline of four major events related to the abolition of slavery.

Rubric for Essay:

1 Point: Student makes an attempt but does not provide accurate information on any topic.

2 Points: Student writes one paragraph, which includes one topic.

3 Points: Student writes two paragraphs including two topics.

4 Points: Student writes three paragraphs which include all three topics.

Cross Curriculum 

If possible, visit historic Second Baptist Church in Detroit, which was a site on the Underground Railroad and is open to visitors. Sites in other localities may be substituted.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Give an example of individual philanthropic action that influenced the nation's history.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.4 Give an example of how citizens act for the common good.