Teaching Guide: Exploring the Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Act

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, The Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Consider The Fugitive Slave Law and its Victims, the political cartoon, the drawing called “Operations of the Fugitive-Slave Law,” and the drawing of a woman leaping. What do these show about the experiences of fugitive slaves? What were the different ways fugitive slaves fought against being sold back into slavery?
  2. Harriet Tubman is known for the integral role she played in the Underground Railroad, but there are details about her work that many are unaware of. Based on the biography, explain Harriet Tubman’s role in educating free African Americans. What do we learn about her character based on Frederick Douglass’s letter? What are some details from the text that support the assertion that Tubman was “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent?”
  3. After reading the Fugitive Slave Bill, explain what repercussions abolitionists faced if they were caught helping a fugitive slave. Why did abolitionists take such risks? Consider details of abolitionist assistance in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, and A Woman's Life Work, as well as the evidence of the poster.

Classroom activities

  1. Upper Elementary/Middle School: The picture and narrative of Lear Green can be paired with the picture book Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, which allows students to examine the Underground Railroad from the perspective of a child. Ask students to create a journal from the perspective of a fugitive slave child, using information from this set and Henry’s Freedom Box. The following questions can help students develop their journal entries: What were some fears children had while trying to escape slavery? What motivated them to remain resilient? What do we learn about the importance of liberty and freedom based on these texts?
  2. Middle School: Use the drawing of Maria Weems, the drawing of Ellen Craft, the drawing called “Operations of the Fugitive-Slave Law,” and the excerpt from A Woman's Life Work in conjunction with novels about similar topics. For example, War Comes to Willy Freeman, by Christopher and James Lincoln Collier, deals with the issue of women having to disguise themselves in order to survive slavery and war in the United States. Ask students to create posters that portray the trauma enslaved women experienced, explain what motivated them to escape, and describe extreme sacrifices they had to make in order to protect themselves and their children. The class can engage in a gallery walk in which students view each other’s posters and provide feedback. (This activity can be extended to high school if used with Toni Morrison’s Beloved.)
  3. High School/College: The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by William M. Mitchell is an excellent resource to include in a curriculum that incorporates Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. (The movie would also be a great text to include in the curriculum.) Ask students to write an essay that examines the similarities between the experiences of the three abolitionists, comparing and contrasting rhetorical strategies they used to gain allies in the abolitionist movement.

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