How the Underground Railroad worked and the people associated with the Underground Railroad

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How the Underground Railroad worked and the people associated with the Underground Railroad

By Cheryl Surles

with an emphasis on the Midwestern states

Cheryl Surles

History H575

Annotated Bibliography


Slavery is a scar that existed in our country from as early as a century before the writing of our constitution in 1776 until the 13th Amendment of the Constitution in 1865. During this time period, many disagreed with slavery. Abolitionists, mainly found in the North, aided fugitive slaves as they tried to escape from the bonds of slavery to the “free land” of the North. Slaves crossed the Ohio River from the border state of Kentucky hoping to find assistance in the “free” state of Indiana on their way to Canada. The system, due to the Fugitive Act of 1850, was extremely dangerous for the slaves as well as for the free men or women who assisted them. The Underground Railroad came about as a somewhat organized system for helping these fugitives.

Due to the fact that Indiana was one of the major stops on the Underground Railroad, and that Levi Coffin had a home where he helped fugitive slaves in our own Wayne County, I wanted to develop a unit that would teach my students about the people who were involved locally and then broaden out to include other influential people who were instrumental in aiding these slaves. This would include the large settlement of Wayne County Quakers who were involved in the Underground Railroad. I also want my students to understand the fear that slaves had as they embarked on this journey as well as the risks involved in assisting the runaways. I would like my students to understand that when you are owned by another person, whether in a decent situations or a horrible situation, you are never safe; at any time your situation can change and you never have control of its outcome. Lastly, I think it is important to refute the claim that African Americans could not act or organize on their own; a belief that was common during this time period.


How the Underground Railroad worked and the people associated with the Underground Railroad: with an emphasis on the Midwestern states. The information in this bibliography is geared for the intermediate elementary level student.


Advertising Ephemera Collection. "Slaves for sale-Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920." Vers. Database #A0160. Duke University Libraries. Advertising & Marketing History John W. Hartman Center for Sales. March 16, 2010. (accessed April 24, 2011).

This web site contains six different primary documents pertaining to the sale of Negros during the 1850’s. These documents offer the sale of African American slaves, including children. They offer individuals for sale as well as gangs of slaves to work in rice or cotton fields. These documents could be used in the intermediate grades to help students understand that slaves were thought of as a commodity rather than humans.

Bentley, Judith. "Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. New York: Cobblehill books/Dutton, 1997.

A young adult book about how African American William Still and Quaker Thomas Garrett worked together to help more than 10000 slaves escape across the Mason-Dixon Line separating their two states. The book is based on the correspondence and journals kept by William Still. Historical photographs, etchings, photographs of letters are included in the book. This can be used as a reading group book for upper elementary students to help them gain an understanding of the conditions and dangers involved on this journey.

Butler, Marvin Benjamin. My Story of the Civil War and the Under-ground Railroad. Huntington, Ind: The United Brethren Publishing Establishment, 1914.

This is a primary document that Marvin Benjamin Butler put together years after serving in the Civil War. Three years prior to the war he started to keep a journal. Years later he decided to develop his journal into a writing giving his interpretation of life in Indiana and the Underground Railroad. This complete book can be read on-line and gives educators an excellent resource of actual events and people during this time period.

DNR: Underground Railroad. n.d. (accessed April 26, 2011).

This resource is a document from the State of Indian that gives information about the history of the state and how it treated people of color from the time it became a Territory on into when it obtained statehood. It also gives an account of the role the state played in the Underground Railroad. Rather than one path or track, the Underground Railroad webbed through the state. It gives information about the many conductors around the state that helped the slaves with their plight to freedom. This would be helpful for an educator teaching either 4th or fifth grade as it gives valuable, historical information about this time period.

Dunn, Jacob Piatt. "Underground Railroad." Underground Railroad Indiana. 2004. (accessed April 23, 2011).

This web site contains information about how slavery came about in North America. In the late 1800’s slaves were being aided in their plight for freedom. In 1831 the Underground Railroad was used as a means for helping African Americans escape. This site also tells about the formation of the Indiana Anti-Slavery League. For many slaves that made it across the Ohio River from Kentucky, they knew if they could make it to Wayne County, they had hopes of making it to freedom. This web site could be used for both educators and students to get background information and to see several primary documents from newspapers in the early 1800’s about this topic.

Fort, Bruce. American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology. University of Virginia. March 6, 1998. (accessed April 23, 2011).

A collection of American Slave Narratives that were taken from 1936-38 about former slaves first-hand account of their life on plantations, in cities, and on small farms in the south. A sample of these narratives and some of the photographs taken during the interviews are available. Intermediate students and higher would be able to listen to the stories as told by actual slaves.

Follow the Drinking Gourd: The Story of the Underground Railroad. Directed by American Heroes and Legends. Produced by Inc. Rabbit Ears Productions. Performed by Narrated by Morgan Freeman.

The folk song and story book is narrated by Morgan Freeman. Students in all grades could use it as a read aloud to understand how folk songs were used by people. Students can also map the directions given in the song. It can help with the understanding of what the Underground Railroad was and how it came about.

Gorrell, Gena. North Star to Freedom. New York: Delacorte Press, 1997.

This book covers the history of slavery in the western hemisphere from the 1500’s through the Civil War. It is written from the perspective of a Quaker and she tells the religious roots of the abolitionist movement. It depicts the impact of slavery on the emotional lives of victims and oppressors as well as the communities and the nation. It has historical photographs as etchings. Intermediate students would be able to read this to gain understanding of this period.

Hamilton, Virginia. Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Anthony Burns was a slave that escaped and then arrested on put on trial. He was sent back into conditions worse than he was in originally. It is a historical fiction based on Anthony Burns’ true story. Intermediate and above could read this book to gain understanding for the dangers of an escaping slave.

Hendrick, George, Willene Hendrick, Levi Coffin, and William Still. Fleeing for Freedom : Stories of the Underground Railroad. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, ©2004.

This is a collection of stories compiled by George and Willene Hendricks. These stories are narratives from Levi Coffin and William Still who assisted fugitive slaves escape to freedom. Included in the narratives is the story of Henry “Box” Brown who shipped himself as freight to the north in order to gain his freedom. This can be used by teachers for background information and to obtain stories to pass on to students.

Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Underground Railroad Sites in Indiana. 2011. (accessed April 26, 2011).

This resource is a document from the State of Indian that gives information about the history of the state and how it treated people of color from the time it became a Territory on into when it obtained statehood. It also gives an account of the role the state played in the Underground Railroad. Rather than one path or track, the Underground Railroad webbed through the state. It gives information about the many conductors around the state that helped the slaves with their plight to freedom. This would be helpful for an educator teaching either 4th or fifth grade as it gives valuable, historical information about this time period.

"John Rankin's house was one...", April 26, 2011.

There are several primary sources of items from the Underground Railroad. John Rankin’s house along with cartoon etching of Levi Coffin and Henry “Box” Brown are available for teachers to show students. These documents can be used in a variety of ways including writing activities, socratic seminar topics as well as discussion starters.

Johnston, Nonna. Over Jordan. New York: Avon Books, Inc., 1999.

A story set in the 1830’s at a safe house on the Indiana shore of the Ohio River. A disguised fourteen year old daughter of a judge transports her cherished servant of many years and his fiancé, a runaway slave, on a journey North to Freedom. Could be used by an intermediate elementary student in order to get background information from a historical fiction book.

Kallen, Stuart A. Life on the Underground Railroad. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000.

For the Series “The Way People Live,” this book is for higher level intermediate elementary students and above. It is full of quotations by important people in the Underground Railroad, and has a great deal of historical details. Included in this book is a chapter entitled “Lives of the Trackers.”

"Levi & Catherine Coffin & The Underground Railroad." You Tube. March 25, 2008. (accessed April 23, 2011).

This Video clip gives background information on Levi Coffin and his involvement on the Underground Railroad in the State of Indiana. It shows a virtual tour of the house that is available for tours and fieldtrips. It can be used to show students where slaves were hidden by the Coffins in their Fountain City Home.

Meltzer, Mileon. Underground Man. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

This book is an historical fiction book that depicts a teenage logger from Ohio who becomes an abolitionist after an encounter with a runaway slave. He devotes himself to the abolition cause, and becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is put in prison for “enticing slaves to leave their owner”. It is historically accurate and would give intermediate students information about the events and dangers of people who helped slaves on their road to freedom.

Miller, Douglas T. Fredrick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom. New York: Facts on the File Plublications/Makers of America, 1988.

This is a young adult biography that depicts the life story of Fredrick T. Douglas before and after the Civil War. This narrative presents issues of south vs. north, slave owners vs. abolitionists, whites vs. blacks. It has an extensive bibliography that gives good resources on related topics. This could be used for freshmen students and above or as a teacher resource on background information for Post-Civil War time period.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The Underground Railroad. 2004-2011. (accessed April 26, 2011).

The Freedom Center is located in Cincinnati. It is a center dedicated to telling stories of America’s heroes including those involved on the Underground Railroad. The web site has information that can be accessed to obtain background information about the Underground Railroad for educators and students. It is also a facility that educators can go to in order to obtain information and can even be used as a fieldtrip for students.

Peters, Pamela R. The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., 2001.

Floyd County, Indiana, is located across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville was a major slave-trade center, and Indiana was a free state. Many slaves fled to Floyd County by way of the Underground Railroad. This book contains court records, newspaper stories, oral history accounts, and other materials including detailing the struggles that runaway slaves faced in Floyd County. This could be used as a background resource for teachers learning more about the effects of fugitive slaves in Indiana.

Sawyer, Kem Knapp. The Underground Railroad in American History. Berkley Heights, NU 1997: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

This book gives historical information on the Underground Railroad appropriate for intermediate to young adult readers. It covers the role the Erie steamship captains had in transporting fugitives to Canada. It also gives information on the life of Quaker Levi coffin. It explores the Underground Railroad experience from many different perspectives. Chapters of interest include: The Escape, Living in Slavery, The Flight, The Fugitives, Famous Conductors, On Trial, and The Promised Land.

Stein, R. Conrad. The Underground Railroad. New York: Children's Press, Division of Grolier, 1997.

This book depicts the operation, stations and conductors of the Underground Railroad. Fugitives in this book include: Harriet Tubman, Eli Whitney, Nat Turner, Dred Scott, Levi Coffin, Thomas Garrett, Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jermain Loguen, William Still, Frederick Douglass, Henry “Box” Brown, John Fairfield, Abraham Lincoln. Also included are photographs, etchings and historical maps. This book would be a good source for students researching the people from this time period.

Swain, Gwenyth, and Ralph L Ramstad. President of the Underground Railroad : a Story About Levi Coffin. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2001.

This book tells the life story of Levi Coffin from an early age of 15. Years later when he was able to afford it, he moved to Indiana where his house became part of the Underground Railroad. It tells of his contributions to abolitionist causes and how he founded the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission. The book gives a true depiction of the brutality and horrors of slavery that would be a great conversation started for any age studying this period. It also is written at a level that intermediate elementary age students could gain valuable insights to this time period.

Wall, Ginny. Songs of Freedom. 2004. (accessed April 25, 2011).

This web site gives you the words of spirituals that slaves sang as they escaped or dreamed about escaping to freedom. These spirituals had codes embedded in them that would tell escaping slaves when, how and where they needed to go. This communication using secret messages and information was vital for the slaves due to the fact that it was against the law for slaves to learn how to read. Songs include: This Train is Bound for Glory, The Ballad of the Underground Railroad, Follow the Drinking Gourd, Darling Nelly Gray, Steal Away, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, The Gospel Trains a Comin’, and Wade in the Water. These resources could be used in a variety of ways including singing, play writing, creative writing or more.

Underground Railroad. Directed by The History Channel. Produced by A&E Home Video. Performed by Hosted by Alfre Woodard.

This is a DVD that can be purchased to view in the classroom. It traces the journey to freedom of slaves, showing how they were helped along the way by people they didn’t know. This DVD uses historical documents, visits important sites and interviews descendants of abolitionists. This video would give students an understanding of the Underground railroad from many different perspectives including Ed Rigaud, the President of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Yannessa, Mary Ann. Levi Coffin, Quaker : Breaking the Bonds of Slavery in Ohio and Indiana. Richmond, Ind: Friends United Press, ©2001.

This book is a biography of Levi Coffin, the reputed President of the Underground Railroad. It begins in North Carolina where as a Quaker, he helped runaway slaves. The focus of this book is on Coffin’s abolitionist activities from 1847 through the Civil War and his support for freed blacks after the war. This locally published book gives another background account on the workings of the Underground Railroad.


In teaching students history, we tend to take an interesting story and turn it into a fairy tale or a feel-good mythical story for children. I believe the Underground Railroad is one of these stories. The Underground Railroad was not a railroad at all. It was a network of Americans, both black and white, who helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom.

The Underground Railroad was not a formal system of routes and paths using secret codes and conductors that went down south and led slaves on a journey to freedom as I once thought. In fact, I found out that slaves usually had to get themselves out of the south and into states such as Indiana and Ohio and then once they were in a “free state”, an informal network of people, mostly free blacks, aided them on their journey. With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, blacks were not safe when they got to a “free state”. They would need to get to Canada in order to be safe from the law. Many “free blacks” faced the threat of being sent back into slavery if their masters had not issued proper papers. The horrors of slavery were never truly gone.

I always felt that those who helped the fugitive slaves were people who were dedicated to destroying the institution of slavery. In reality this was not always the case. There was an informal alliance of Northern Abolitionists who were working to abolish slavery along with those who felt that slavery was not right, but they didn’t want anything to do with slaves and felt as if they were inferior to the white race. This really surprised me because I had always carried with me a warm fuzzy feeling towards these do-goers that helped the poor slaves escape, but actually considered the black man/woman as some type of subhuman.

I cannot even begin to understand what it would be like to be owned by someone. I do know that it is important to teach children the dehumanizing facts of slavery and prejudice associated with people due to race so they can understand the importance of “freedom and justice for all” as given us by our Constitution.

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