William Still and the Underground Railroad Lesson Plan

              I. STANDARDS

a)   Historical Analysis and Skill Development: 8.1.9.C.D:

i. Students will be asked to interpret primary source documents handed to them and interpret the opinions and historical context of that time period.

b)   United States History: 8.3.9.D:

i. Students will interpret how conflict and cooperation among groups and organizations have impacted the growth and development of the U.S.


             II. OBJECTIVE

Students will apply knowledge of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to explain how Africans both free and enslaved cautiously navigated their lives in a slave society.  Students will identify and define various forms of the African resistance to the institution of slavery in order to analyze the Underground Railroad, its importance, its secrecy and its dangers.  Students will also evaluate the role of the participants in during the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia from the nineteenth century in order to trace the development of African Americans to achieve American freedom.  This lesson is taught to incorporate the local history aspect of the state and national social studies  standards, highlighting African American contributions. Students will evaluate the activities of Underground Railroad agents, as well as abolitionists in the City of Philadelphia in their efforts to eradicate slavery as well as access the  impact of their activities at the state and national levels.  Students will analyze and interpret primary resources including accounts recorded by William Still.  Students will have the opportunity to discuss and formulate their own  opinions about the activities of those who participated in the Underground Railroad as well as other African forms of resistance to slavery. They then will be asked to connect the history of slavery and notions of race to present day race relations as well as other movements and social reforms in American society.



a)  Textbook Chapter 8: Let Your Motto Be Resistance, 1833-1850

b) Assigned documents from the Links on the William Still: An African American Abolitionist website (https://exhibits.temple.edu/s/william-still/page/william-still)

c) Projector to play video clips of Underground Railroad conductors and illustrations depicting slavery for the class discussion.



a)   William Still

i. Warm up exercise - Instruct students they will not be able to return home again nor have any contact with their family and friends, and are to be sold to the highest bidder to work involuntary without payment for their labor.

ii. Show class video of William Still documentary and ask them to define the Underground Railroad and Still’s role in the movement.

iii. Explain how slavery based on race developed in the United States and became a legalized institution.

iv. Lead discussion on how students felt when they learned that they had lost control of their basic rights and ask their responses to their circumstances.

v. Newspaper assignment, group work, and assign presentation for next class.


             V. MOTIVATION

a) Show the class video clips and pictures during slavery, and have them discuss where they believe this took place.

i. Pictures

1.   Life in Philadelphia series

2.   William Still

3.   Runaway Slave Advertisements

ii. Videos

1.   William Still Documentary

2.   Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey


             VI. PROCEDURES

a)   (10 min Warm Up) Students will be told that they were being held in bondage because of their phenotype.  They will be told that there are laws which state they have no rights and must accept their status as enslaved for the rest of their natural lives.  They are told that they cannot assemble in groups of more than five.  They cannot own property or testify in court.  They are prohibited from learning to read and write.  They cannot conduct religious service without a white present.  They cannot play the drums.  They cannot travel without permission from their owner.  When they get permission to travel, they must carry a pass.  They cannot marry.  They cannot possess firearms.  Have students discuss their feelings about their status and the restrictions with a partner, and then discuss as a whole group.  Discuss how students felt when they heard that they would never be free.  How did they feel about their status and were they willing to accept it?

b)   (15 min) Teacher will read runaway slave advertisements and excerpts from slave narratives as well as the Negro spirituals including Oh Lord, How Come Me HereSometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child and No More Auction Block for Me.  Ask students to analyze the slave advertisements and narratives.  Ask students to interpret the lyrics to the Negro spirituals

i. The teacher will read firsthand accounts from William Still’s The Underground Railroad. (Use the Links on the William Still: an African American Abolitionist website (https://exhibits.temple.edu/s/william-still/page/william-still) to read the digitized version).  Explaining to the students that the people took great risks to gain their freedom and through their acts that they demonstrated an act of self-determination as well as participated in the demise of slavery.

ii. Students must be reminded of previous statements by teacher to constantly be thinking critically of information and data they are encountering as well as be aware of author and participants opinions and bias interpretations.

c)   The Teacher will then give a mini-lecture on William Still, known as the Father of The Underground Railroad. 

i. Why did the institution of slavery remain legal in America for almost 250 years?

ii. What social, political, or economic forces allowed for this to happen?   

d)  (25 min) Using what the students have learned about slavery and Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in previous lessons, they will separate into groups of three or four and read antislavery newspapers from the mid-1800s when William Still was involved in the Underground Railroad.  Students as a group should be able to answer the following questions after reading through their primary source document and present to the class their findings;

1.   What is the date in which this was published?

2.   Who was the author/creator of this document?

3.   For what audience was this document created?

4.   What has the author said that you think is important; list three points?

5.   Why do you think the document was created?

6.   What evidence in the document allows you to know why it was written?

7.   What does this document tell you about life in the United States at the time it was created?

8.   Each group will now ask a question to the author or person of interest from article or event discussed that was left unanswered by the document.

ii. Group 1

  1.   Solomon Northrup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, 1841

  2.   The Africans from the Amistad arrive in Philadelphia, 1841

  3.   Frederick Douglass begins career as an abolitionist, writer and speaker, 1841

  4.   White mob assaults and beats Negroes and loots their homes, burns down a Negro hall and a church in Philadelphia, 1842

  5.   Sojourner Truth begins abolitionist work, 1843

iii. Group 2

  1.   William Still finds employment in the office of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, 1847

  2.   Dred Scott filed a lawsuit claiming freedom, 1847

  3.   Frederick Douglass begins publishing North Star, 1847

  4.   Harriet Tubman escapes slavery and arrived in Philadelphia, 1849

  5.   Henry “Box” Brown escapes slavery in a wooden box shipped to Philadelphia, 1849

iv. Group 3

  1.   Peter Still, William Still’s brother, escapes slavery, 1850

  2.   The U.S. Congress enacts the Compromise of 1850

  3.   The Fugitive Slave Act replaces Fugitive Slave of 1793, 1850

  4.   Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published, 1852

  5.   Martin R. Delany’s The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States is published, 1852

  6.   Frederick Douglass delivers his famous “Fourth of July” speech, 1852

v. Group 4

  1.   Frances Ellen Watkins Harper moves to Philadelphia, 1853

  2.   William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States is published, 1853

  3.   The Benjamin Banneker Institute is founded in Philadelphia, 1854

  4.   Lincoln University, one of the first black colleges, is chartered as Ashmun Institute in Oxford, PA, 1854

  5.   The U.S. Congress and President Franklin Pierce approves the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854


             VI.   SUMMARY/CLOSURE

a)   The students learned through discussion and analysis how to decipher primary source documents.

b)   Students also learned to work together and present as a group their findings after reading newspaper clippings from a historical event.

c)   Students also learned that slavery was a national problem sanctioned by the federal government.

d)  Students will be able to comprehend how the legality of slavery impacted African resistance to slavery in the court systems at the state and federal levels.

e)   Teacher will use the development and maintenance of the Underground Railroad as well as other forms of African resistance to slavery to introduce the next day’s lesson of William Still and Black Life in 19th Century Philadelphia and how the first significant free Black population struggles for “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in the decades leading up to the Civil War .

f)    At the very end of the lesson the teacher will propose to the class as they are leaving to write down on a piece of paper one fact they learned today and one question they had about what they discussed and accomplished in class.


             VII. ASSIGNMENT (in school or homework)

a)   Newspaper analysis assignment and group presentation.

b)   Student will be asked after the William Still and Black Life in 19th Century Philadelphia lesson, to write a letter to the City Council requesting change as if they were living in Philadelphia at that time.

c)   Possible extra-credit or follow up paper,

i. Write an essay constructed around who William Still was, what was the issue at hand with the Underground Railroad in regards to African freedom, or a letter as if the students were writing to William Still as parents of the children who were being held in bondage.


Textbook used by the School District of Philadelphia

Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine and Stanley Harrold, African-American History, Pearson Education, Inc., Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2006