The Underground Railroad is a topic in history I was excited to cover with my kids in our homeschool. It’s such an important subject to discuss so that children can truly understand slavery and a period in our country that still effects us today. I took this topic and made it into a unity study that we worked on over a few weeks. Here is my Underground Railroad Unit Study!
This year I decided to cover the Civil War era in our homeschool history. Obviously a huge part of that is the history of slavery in our country and the underground railroad. Many people mistake the underground railroad to be a part of an actual railroad system. This isn’t true. In fact, no one knows where the title “The Underground Railroad” comes from for sure. One theory is that the name came from a slave catcher who just couldn’t find the slave he was after, so he said that they just seemed to disappear, as if they went on some kind of mysterious underground railroad.
Although we don’t know where the term came from for sure, the term stuck and so did many other names that went along with it. Safe houses and safe places became known as “stations”, and people who helped slaves, whether by leading them on a route or giving them a place to stay, were called “conductors”.
There also was no one, known route that each slave took. Many times, slaves would escape by themselves and not have any help until they go to the free states up north. Slaves also escaped out west, as well as south down into Mexico. There are stories of many slaves also going over to England and Canada.
Roadschooling the Underground Railroad
For us, no unit study is complete without visiting some amazing places. So, I had to add some roadschooling trips to my underground railroad unit study. If you live east of the Mississippi, chances are you’re near some type of underground railroad museum or site to go visit. I recently learned that there’s even a house in my hometown in Ohio that was a part of the underground railroad that you can still go visit.
Last summer, before we even started covering the civil war, we took a trip to Pennsylvania and went to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg. My kids were able to learn quite a bit about slavery and some stories about slaves who decided to escape. They even had a box that was a replica of the one Henry Box Brown traveled in (more about him in a bit).
We also took a trip to The Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum in Washington, North Carolina. This little museum had some big heart! The museum was inside of a real train caboose. Small in size, but the couple who ran it had big heart! They gave us our own private tour and told us all about each of their little exhibits.
Did you know that sunflowers and black eyed susans played a role in the underground railroad? Apparently, sunflowers were a signal to runaway slaves that today was a bad day to escape, as there are big eyes looking out. Black eyes susans were a sign that today may be a safe day, as the eyes were smaller. These flowers may have been placed on porches as a signal to the runaway slaves. Who knew?!
A topic of debate that this little museum discusses also was quilts. Story has it that conductors and others that were a part of the underground railroad made clues, signals, and codes using quilts. Some historians say this isn’t true, as slaves wouldn’t spend the time or money to make something as elaborate as this, and they’d just be using a quilt for it’s true purpose-warmth. But, the owners of this museum highly disagree. They’ve been studying it for years and do believe that there is a connection between these quilts and the patterns served as a code to those running away.
Underground Railroad Books
The next part of my underground railroad unit study is some great reads. My go-to for just about any subject is the Who Was books. I picked up a copy of What Was the Underground Railroad to start us off. Just like the other books from this series, this book didn’t disappoint.This book not only talked about the life of slaves and the basics of the underground railroad, but it also discussed famous people that were part of the underground railroad like Harriet Tubman, Henry Box Brown, Caroline Quarlls, and Ellen and William Craft.
Henry’s Freedom Box is another book that was highly recommended to us from the couple who ran the museum in Washington. It tells more about Henry Box Brown’s life in a picture book format. You can read the book yourself, or watch this video where it is read to you. This amazing man traveled in a box to win his freedom. That’s also where he got his name.
Moses is the perfect nickname for Harriet Tubman, who is probably the most well known person that one thinks of when it comes to the underground railroad. She led more people to freedom in the underground railroad than any other single person.
Additional Resources and Activities
Did you know that you can earn a special badge just for the underground railroad in the Junior Ranger program?! I was so excited to see that this was a part of the Junior Ranger mail in program. You can print and complete all of the activities at home, and mail them in. The badge will then be mailed to you. These were the perfect companion to our unit study.
The National Park Service also has a spot on their website dedicated to the underground railroad. It has a map and a list of places that are still standing and a part of the National Register of Historical Places for the underground railroad.
A great way to get hands on with the underground railroad is to make your own map. My kids love map tracing. They can trace any map of the US, mark the free states and slave states, and mark which route they would take if they were a part of the underground railroad and wanted to make it to freedom. (You can get a copy of a map to print with my license plate game printable.)
The Underground Railroad Unit Study
My kids had a great time going through this Underground Railroad Unit Study. I feel like they have more of an appreciation for what African Americans endured through slavery than they did before our study. It has brought up lots of questions and everyday learning opportunities in our house.
Have you studied the underground railroad in your homeschool? Share what you did in the comments below or in my online homeschool community.