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What is the Underground Railroad?

written by: Kathy Foust • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 9/11/2012

This history lesson plan serves as an introduction to the underground railroad. Take your students on a journey in their minds as they learn about slavery and the underground railroad.

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    Introduction to Slavery

    To understand the underground railroad, students must first understand slavery. Review the following information with your students, then ask them to answer the questions below.

    Slavery is the ownership of a human being. While it is illegal here in the Unites States, it wasn't always. Before the Civil War, slavery was quite common and even expected of the people living in the upper class. Slaves were used to do all types of work, from being hand maids to farming the land. Often, slaves were not treated well and suffered greatly at the hands of their masters. They had no rights and therefore no way to defend themselves when they were abused. It was not even illegal for a slave to be killed for any reason. They were considered property as much as a cow or a building were.

    Gradually slavery became illegal in the northern states. However, slaves that ran away to the north were often captured and returned to their "masters" in the south to be disciplined as their owners felt necessary. For some, the only solution was to leave the country. Since it was also illegal to harbor a runaway slave, a system began to develop in which slaves were led to freedom with the help of citizens that felt slavery to be wrongful and immoral. The exact date of the beginning of the underground railroad is unknown mostly due to the fact that its very existence had to be kept secret. Lives were at stake and the price for freedom was high.

    So how did the underground railroad operate? Obviously it wasn't feasible to just walk up to a house and ask for help. Signals were developed so that runaway slaves knew whether it was safe to stop at a house or not. These signals came in the form of quilts, lit lanterns and sometimes simply by a message from a friend of the underground railroad.

    Hundreds of slaves were led to freedom by using the underground railroad. There were many routes that are well documented today and more routes that are still today held secret. Though the runaway slaves often had to hide in cellars or wagons and go for long periods of time in the cold and without food, they felt their quest for freedom was worth the effort. And they found their freedom in Canada as the United States came to terms with the changes taking place within the country.

    Based on the above information, ask students to answer the following questions.

    1. What is the underground railroad?
    2. If you lived during the time of the underground railroad would you have assisted the runaway slaves to freedom though it could cost you everyone and everything you hold dear? Why or why not?
    3. Who has the right to be free?
    4. If slavery was illegal in the north, why did the runaways feel it necessary to go all the way to Canada?
    5. Imagine yourself to be a runaway slave. You have been beaten and starved by your "master". What do you think you would have to face to travel through the underground railroad? Would your freedom be worth it to you?
    6. Imagine yourself to be a runaway slave. Your "master" treats you well, but you are still owned by another human being. your best friend is running away tonight in search of freedom through the underground railroad. Would you go with your best friend or stay where you are? Why or why not?

    For a reference to the Underground Railroad on the National Geographic website, read more here.