Experiencing the Underground Railroad
Age/Grade Level or Audience
Middle school, high school, and college language and drama classes; religious schools.
Present a pantomime of slaves escaping to the North.
Explain to the group that a network of 3,200 people formed the Underground Railroad, which, from 1830 to 1860, led 2,500 slaves per year toward safety. Many died along the way from hunger, cold, wounds, falls, or drowning; some were recaptured and returned to slavery. Many more built new lives for themselves in free states or Canada. For the pantomine, let students select a role to dramatize, for example, bystander, farmer, doctor, minister, leader, parent, aged slave, child, patroller, slave catcher, sheriff, Quaker or Mennonite abolitionist, station master, conductor, or plantation owner. Enact the following scenes:
- intolerable slave conditions, such as the separation of families, hard labor, dangerous jobs, disease, and inadequate clothing, food, and shelter
- planning an escape
- gathering information from knowledgeable and trustworthy sources
- storing food and supplies for the journey
- making a getaway
- moving through forests and swamps or over rivers
- hopping trains or wagons
- locating roots, nuts, berries, grain, fruit, and mushrooms for food
- quietly snaring animals and birds
- staying warm, dry, and well
- treating wounds, illness, or crying infants
- hiding while sleeping
- getting directions and following the North Star
- avoiding patrollers, dogs, and slave catchers
- wearing a disguise
- locating a conductor and station house
- acquiring a fake pass or papers of manumission
- establishing a new home
- learning to read
- finding work
- reuniting with lost relatives and friends
Cheek, William F., Black Resistance before the Civil War, Glencoe Press, 1970.
Evitts, William J., Captive Bodies, Free Spirits: The Story of Southern Slavery, Messner, 1985.
Himes, Chester, The Third Generation, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852, reprinted, Norton, 1993.
Have students compose dialogue to accompany emotional moments such as these:
- parting from old friends and family
- trusting an agent of the Underground Railroad
- risking whippings and brandings for trying to escape
- reaching a safe house
- hearing dogs approach
- fighting off snakes, insects, alligators, and other animals
- getting lost
- reaching a free state
- searching for missing family members