Roy E. Finkenbine wrote today’s post on teaching the Underground Railroad. Dr. Finkenbine is Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist Archive at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is a member of the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission. From 2006 through 2018, he taught an annual summer workshop on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad is an important part of U.S. history. It allows students to explore the institution of slavery by focusing on enslaved peoples’ pursuit of freedom. The Underground Railroad demonstrates how individuals and groups can work across the racial divide for the greater good.
Teachers at all levels may enrich their instruction by integrating the story of the Underground Railroad into courses on U.S. history. Elementary and secondary teachers will find opportunities to do this in the Michigan social studies standards. At the community college or university level, there are opportunities to include it in the U.S. history survey or even to create stand-alone courses on the subject.
This article starts with resources for building a background understanding of the Underground Railroad. Then it reviews primary resources that teachers can use in the classroom. It also discusses how best to use fiction and avoid stories based purely in myths. Finally, the article ends with a review of geographic resources for teachers.
Developing a Background Understanding: Key Secondary Sources
There are many useful secondary sources for developing a background understanding of the Underground Railroad. A few of my favorites are:
- David W. Blight, Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (2004)
- Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement (2006)
- Kerry Walters, The Underground Railroad: A Reference Guide (2012)
- Carol Mull, The Underground Railroad in Michigan (2010)
- Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Tucker, eds., A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland (2016)
Recently, scholars have begun writing about non-white activists that helped freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad. I recommend the following:
- Keith Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (2010)
- “Forgotten History of the Native Americans Who Helped the Underground Railroad,” Time, September 19, 2019 (https://time.com/5681533/native-americans-underground-railroad/)
- An Odawa oral tradition about Native Americans assisting freedom seekers in Michigan is told in Bill Dunlop and Marcia Fountain-Blacklidge, The Indians of Hungry Hollow (2004)
Engaging Students: Primary Sources
Often, the best way to engage students is through the words of the participants themselves. Useful one-volume collections of runaway slave voices include:
- Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise, eds., The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives (2012)
- Christine Rudisel and Bob Blaisdell, eds., Slave Narratives of the Underground Railroad (2014).
- William Still, The Underground Railroad (1872), which is based on his interviews with freedom seekers coming through Philadelphia. It is available in a variety of reprint editions.
The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has made large collection of slave narratives available online. You can access them by going to http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/ and clicking on “North American Slave Narratives.” This source includes digitized copies of nearly all the book-length autobiographies of formerly enslaved people, including the stories of their escapes.
Of course, Underground Railroad activist perspectives are interesting and informative. Here are a few:
- Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1876), the autobiography of a major Indiana activist, discusses his work in helping runaways through the Midwest.
- Stuart Seely Sprague, ed., His Promised Land (1996), the autobiography of John P. Parker at Ripley on the Ohio River, is riveting and works well with students of a variety of ages.
- For Michigan activists, see Laura Haviland, A Woman’s Life Work (1881), as well as Detroiters William Lambert and George DeBaptiste, whose post-Civil War reminiscences are available from the Central Michigan University Clarke Historical Library: https://www.cmich.edu/library/clarke/AccessMaterials/Bibliographies/UndergroundRailroad/Pages/default.aspx
Fiction and Mythology
There are many fictional works, including novels, which work well with students to introduce the Underground Railroad. One of the best is Patricia Polacco’s January’s Sparrow (2009). It is a fictionalized tale of the real case of the Crosswhite family from Marshall, Michigan. It is written for ages 8-12.
Unfortunately, several authors have published books over the past few decades that popularize myths about the Underground Railroad. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (2000), by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, created a myth about the use of quilt codes in the Underground Railroad.
Scholastic has assembled a good compilation of Underground Railroad myths (and the counter-evidence) at their website: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/underground_railroad/myths.htm.
Geography of the Underground Railroad
Increasingly, attention is being paid to the role of geography in the Underground Railroad. Cheryl LaRoche’s Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (2014) is a valuable resource that emphasizes the important role of free black communities.
A useful reproducible map of the Underground Railroad, produced by National Geographic, can be found at: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/maps/undergroundrailroad/.
I encourage you to find ways to integrate the story of the Underground Railroad into your classes. It will be worth the effort.