What would you do?  Decisions on the Path to Freedom

High School Lesson Plan for the Underground Railroad

Kathryn Wineland


Overview and Personal objectives:

Generally speaking, this lesson is a series of situations based on historical figures.  Students are asked to contemplate the scenarios to the best of their ability, then decide how they would respond.  Once they have responded, they are presented with further information on the scenario, occasionally including primary sources and further questions.  One thing we talk about in my history classes are how events may have turned out differently, if people had made different decisions.  I like to see the Underground Railroad story, not just as a network with a common purpose, but as a group of individuals who made decisions.  As a sub-objective, I hope that students not only learn about the nature of the national context of slavery, fugitive escapes, abolition and the underground railroad,  but also deeper lessons in empathy, ethics, that decisions we make have real consequences and ultimately the power of an ordinary individual to  accomplish great things.


Materials:  Ideally, I could create a program like this, using a better software option than word and burn it to CD-Rom for each student—who naturally would have their own computer to use it on—with documents hyperlinked to the software.  Realistically—since my school has not such luxuries, I could see using printed examples, possibly as museum exhibit styled stations or grouped packets.


Lesson Plan:

Class conducts a brief overview of “the underground railroad,” brainstorming pre-conceived notions (who participated/how?  Where and why fugitives left?)  —writing some responses on board.  Students are asked to keep these ideas in mind as we conduct today’s experiment.  Teacher explains that they will be asked to try on the shoes of several different people who were involved in the UGRR. 

As a class, we will go over the lab introduction page.

Students will complete the lab individually while teacher monitors class for questions and to further challenge students.

When most are finished, class will come back together for a discussion, not only on decisions but a re-evaluation of the status of brain-stormed ideas about the Underground railroad.

Students will then be assigned a culminating essay answering 1)  Define the Underground Railroad and 2)either of the main questions posed in the lab summation.



Opportunities for extensions and modifications:

I selected what I thought to be representative decisions from key players across the spectrum.  Naturally, more scenarios could be used, and more/fewer primary sources could be used, depending on the student’s ability level.  I contemplated seeking local history examples which always remains a future avenue to explore.  Also, one could centralize the concept about 1 particular event, the many figures involved in Christiana for example, for a more cohesive lesson.  Finally, one could have students create a “chose your own adventure” style story where the hero of the story—a fugitive slave for example, makes decisions that possibly lead them freedom.

What would you do?

Real life decisions on the Road to Freedom


What’s going on?

History shows us that doing the right thing is not always easy.  Those who make history have faced situations where the answers are not clearly simple.  They have had to make risky choices, which sometimes, though not always, pay off. 


For today’s lab, you’ll need to try on the shoes of several different people who lived some time prior to the civil war.  You will read a basic scenario and be asked how you would respond in the situation.  You will be given a few ideas to ponder before making your final choice.  For each decision you make, you will have to clearly justify why you took those actions.  You will want to compose a minimum healthy paragraph as a response to each—acknowledging why the choice you picked is superior to other options. If you do not like any of the suggested responses, you are free to create your own so long as it is realistic and you justify your actions.  Also note that some of the choices may overlap, so if you need to take multiple actions, then feel free to do so.  Always keep in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each action. Make sure you address some of these advantages and disadvantages in your response.  


Following your response, you will learn of someone in the past who experienced a scenario similar to the one you faced.  You will read to discover how they responded to the circumstance.  In some cases, you will read primary sources and be asked a few questions to guide you in evaluating this person’s actions.


At the end of the lab, you will review your responses.  As a class, we will conduct a discussion, analyzing the many hard choices people had to make along the road to freedom.


Navigating this lab:

You will find a link to the next page at the bottom of each page.


If you skip a scenario and wish to return to it at a later time, you should use the “Index” option.  This will take you to a “Table of Contents” of sorts which will allow you to go precisely to the point you left off.  It’s also a handy tool to ensure you’ve finished each page necessary and will help you review your responses.


When ever you’re ready, CLICK HERE to begin.


Scenario 1:

You were born in to slavery in a boarder state.  You’ve toiled in the fields and have endured physical hardships, including one injury that nearly took your life.  You have watched as your master sold many of your siblings to far away lands with little hope that you will ever see them again.  Your master has rented your labor out to numerous other masters. While you can never be certain how these other masters will treat you, you can enjoy a little freedom so long as you continue to pay your master, you can pocket a little extra earned money and a bit more freedom than you enjoyed previously.    Though unable to legally marry, you have vowed always to love your “husband”  Now the world as you know it is about to be shattered, as your master pledges to sell you away from your family to satisfy his many debts.  You have attempted to flee once already, with your brothers.  However, this attempt failed miserably making the master angry and more determined to sell you away.


What should you do?

            Accept your fate.  Sure you will be torn on the inside, but what can you do?

            Pledge to work even harder and beg the master to give you time to purchase your freedom.

            Run and hide in the nearby woods.  Soon enough, your master will realize how valuable your wishes are and will reconsider.

            Leave your family behind and flee to the North, though you are not sure how to get there.  You promise to come back for them some day.

            Attempt to make the escape with your entire family, realizing that the children will slow your travels.



Write your choice and justify your response below.

Scenario 1:

What Really Happened?


You have faced the same choices made by the legendary Harriet Tubman.  In 1849, she made the 100 mile trek from Eastern Maryland to Pennsylvania.  Strong willed and determined, Harriet was able to succeed in obtaining her freedom by running.  She was assisted along the way by a series of people—part of the “underground railroad.”   But once in Pennsylvania, she came to a hurtful realization, “I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom.  I was a stranger in a strange land.”  Through roughly 13 trips south, she strove to provide her family the same freedom she enjoyed.  In a cruel twist, she returned to free her husband 2 years after her initial flight, only to learn that he had taken a new wife.


NEXT: Scenario 2




Scenario 2


You live in a Northern town in a free state just a stone’s throw from the slave states opposite the river from your home.  Your home sits high on a hill, overlooking the river.  You do not approve of slavery.  It seems to defy the laws of nature and of god.  However, you also have a rather large family to consider.  You know that it is illegal for you to help fugitives and that the penalties are stiff.  You also know that slave catchers can be rather violent in their efforts to obtain runaways.  One day, you observe a woman and her child crossing the frozen river, breaking through the cracking ice.  She is under the observation of slave catchers on the opposite bank.

What do you do?

            Ignore her, knowing that the slave catchers are too close.  You will put yourself and family at too great a risk if you act.

            Shelter the woman for several days, hiding her in your attic, helping her regain her strength. 

            Comfort the woman with simple aid for the night, then rush her to friends in the next time, where slave catchers will be less likely to find her.

            Help this woman to the best of your ability this time only, but don’t make a habit of it.

            Help this woman and any other fugitive who needs your assistance



Enter and Justify your response


Scenario 2

What really happened

You were walking in the shoes of John Rankin,. Though he was born a southerner, he had always been opposed to slavery.  His highly visible home sat solitarily on a hill overlooking Ripley, Ohio, the Ohio River and the neighboring shore of Kentucky in such a way that it became a beacon of hope to runaways.  Rankin coordinated a web of supporters in Ripley and neighboring abolitionist and African American communities, ensuring a safe and speedy escape for fugitives.  Still, his work was not without risk.  Rewards of $2,500were posted for Rankin’s assassination and his home was attacked on several occasions.


Rankin never knew the name of the woman described in the scenario.  However, Harriet Beecher Stowe would name the woman “Eliza” and use stories of Eliza’s extraordinary escape across the frozen Ohio River as a heart-stirring plea for abolition in her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Eliza was hurriedly rushed by Rankin’s sons to another station.  Gradually, Eliza made it safely to Canada.







Scenario 3



You were born a slave on a Maryland plantation.  After enduring a brutal beating by your master, you inflicted injury upon him in return.  Since you knew that to do so would certainly result in further injury, you fled.  Through your hard work, you earned a place you could call “your farm” in a northern state.  Yet, you were never completely at peace, as you lived in a black community often in fear that slave catchers would kidnap one of your neighbors. With other members of the black community, you’d built a system of communications and pledges to aid others.  In fact, your ability to communicate stretched to Philadelphia.  Having endured the hardships of slavery, you willingly do your utmost to help others obtain the same freedom you enjoy.  While harboring several fugitive slaves, word arrives from Philadelphia that slave catchers are on their way—though you are not exactly certain whom they seek.  The year is 1851 and the fugitive slave act is law, making it a crime to shelter fugitives and further criminal to not aide in their capture.


What would you do?

Comply with the law.  The last thing you want to do is ruffle feathers that could jeopardize your own freedom

Send the fugitive hurriedly on their way, praying that they are not caught in their desperate escape.

Like the fugitives, flee or hide yourself, just in case it is you the slave catchers are coming for.

Stay at your farm, gathering members of your community who, like you are prepared to fight for freedom.


Write your response:

Senario 3:

What really happened?

You have experienced a very real situation in the life of William Parker.  Read for yourself as the events of September 1851 unfold in his memoirs.  (don’t skip this, there are follow-up questions below)

        “You had better give up,” said old Mr. Gorsuch, after another while, “and come down, for I have come a long way this morning, and want my breakfast; for my property I will have, or I’ll breakfast in hell. I will go up and get it.”

        He then started up stairs, and came far enough to see us all plainly. We were just about to fire upon him, when Dickinson Gorsuch, who was standing on the old oven, before the door, and could see into the up-stairs room through the window, jumped down and caught his father, saying,--“O father, do come down! Do come down! They have guns, swords, and all kinds of weapons! They’ll kill you! Do come down!”

        The old man turned and left. When down with him, young Gorsuch could scarce draw breath, and the father looked more like a dead than a living man, so frightened were they at their supposed danger. The old man stood some time without saying anything; at last he said, as if soliloquizing, “I want my property, and I will have it.”

        Kline broke forth, “If you don’t give up by fair means, you will have to by foul.”

        I told him we would not surrender on any conditions.

        Young Gorsuch then said,--“Don’t ask them to give up,--make them do it. We have money, and can call men to take them. What is it that money won’t buy?”

        Then said Kline,--“I am getting tired waiting on you; I see you are not going to give up.”

        He then wrote a note and handed it to Joshua Gorsuch, saying at the same time,--“Take it, and bring a hundred men from Lancaster.”

        As he started, I said,--“See here! When you go to Lancaster, don’t bring a hundred men,--bring five hundred. It will take all the men in Lancaster to change our purpose or take us alive.”

        He stopped to confer with Kline, when Pinckney said, “We had better give up.”

        “You are getting afraid,” said I.

        “Yes,” said Kline, “give up like men. The rest would give up if it were not for you.”

        “I am not afraid,” said Pinckney; “but where is the sense in fighting against so many men, and only five of us?”

        The whites, at this time, were coming from all quarters, and Kline was enrolling them as fast as they came. Their numbers alarmed Pinckney, and I told him to go and sit down; but he said, “No, I will go down stairs.”

        I told him, if he attempted it, I should be compelled to blow out his brains. “Don’t believe, that any living man can take you,” I said. “Don’t give up to any slaveholder.”

        To Abraham Johnson, who was near me, I then turned. He declared he was not afraid. “I will fight till I die,” he said.



Name 3 people involved in this episode.  Describe the role of each person and your impression of their character.








Do you agree with how Parker handles the situation?  Why/not?










Senario 4

In scenario 3, you read of an event that became known as the Christiana Riot.  Yet, William Parker and Edward Gorsuch are not the only people involved in the confrontation.  There are other key decisions that are made during this very tense situation.  To clarify the events that unfolded, slave owner Edward Gorsuch, assisted by Henry Kline, a US Marshall described by Parker as “a professional kidnapper of the basest stamp” proceeded at night to Parker’s home.  After hours of standoff, Parker’s wife went to an upstairs window where she blew a horn, notifying all of trouble on the farm.  Soon many began to arrive to see what was happening.


You are one of the men who arrive on the scene.  You would neither own slaves, nor call yourself an abolitionist.  When you arrive on the scene, inquiring as to what is happening, you are instructed by Kline that you under the Fugitive Slave Act, you are legally bound to assist in the capture of Parker and the fugitives he is harboring.  You’ve known Parker and never really had a problem with him, Kline you’ve just met.  You’ve never been one to break the law, but this whole scene seems a bit ridiculous. 


What do you do?

--go into the house and join Parker

--flee to gather more men to support Parker, knowing that to do

--agree that you must do what the law says is right and take up arms against your neighbor

--try to act as a mediator, negotiating a peaceful compromise between the two sides

--  take a more subtle stand, by simply refusing to aid either side.


Write and justify your response here:


Scenario 4

What really happened?


As it turns out, violence does ensue at Christiana, resulting in the death of Edward Gorsuch, earning these events the title “Christiana Massacres” by southern papers, “Christiana Riots” by northern papers and “Christiana Resistance,” by modern scholars.  (Hint: Think about what each of these different titles means when telling the story)


To send a message to Southern states that the federal government was serious in its attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the compromise of 1850, many involved in the incident at Christiana were put on trial, including Caster Hanway, the man who’s shoes you were walking in moments ago.


Read  from the transcripts of his trial for treason.  After reading, explain what Hanway’s decision was.  What was his role at Christiana?  Do you think him guilty of treason?

Write your response here











Witness testimony (Henry H. Kline) 

Kline: In the mean while Mr. Hanway came up on horseback. The old gentleman, Mr. Edward Gorsuch, requested me to go and ask him to assist us. We found that there was a larger force in the house than we calculated. I came out of the house and went to the bars where Mr. Hanway was sitting on a sorrel horse, and went up to him and said, “Good morning, sir,” and he made no reply. I then asked him his name, and he allowed it was none of my business. I then asked him if he lived in the neighborhood, and he made a remark in the same way. I then told him who I was, and showed him my authority. I took my papers out and handed them to him, and he read them.

Question: Did you hand him these papers? (The warrants.)

Kline: I did, and he read them not only once, but twice.

Question: What did you say to him at that time?

Kline: I told him I was Deputy Marshal, and came to arrest two fugitives belonging to Edward Gorsuch.

Question: When you told him that, what did he say?

Kline: He allowed that the colored people had a right to defend themselves. There was some fifteen or twenty standing there, as near as I can tell, with their guns loaded.

Question: Will you state to the Court again, exactly what Mr. Hanway said at that time?

Kline: After I got through telling him these things, who I was, and he had refused to assist me, I told him what the Act of Congress was, and urged him to assist me. After I had told him my warrants, he read them and handed them back, and he said the colored people had a right to defend themselves, and he was not going to help me, and I asked if he would keep them away, and he said No,--he would not have anything to do with them.

Ashmead: Had you any conversation with Mr. Hanway in regard to any law of Congress?

Kline: I had, sir. 

Ashmead: Be good enough to state to the Court and Jury what it was.

Kline: After he refused, I told him what the act of Congress was as near as I could tell him. That any person aiding or abetting a fugitive slave, and resisting an officer, the punishment was $1000 damages for the slave, and I think to the best of my knowledge imprisonment for five years. I told him that. He said he did not care for any act of Congress or any other law. That is what he said.

R.      * *

Witness testimony (Elijah Lewis):

Mr. Brent: When Hanway said to Kline he would have nothing to do with it, was not that in reply to Kline’s request to assist him?

Lewis: It was.

Mr. Brent: When he requested him to assist him, his reply was, he would have nothing to do with it?

Lewis: Yes.

Witness testimony (Isaac Rogers):

Question: What did Mr. Hanway do?

Rogers : He turned on his critter and he says several times, “don’t shoot, boys.”


NEXT                                        INDEX




In light of these stories and numerous more like it, the question becomes “How far would you be willing to go for your own freedom?”


Could you leave your family and everything you know behind?

Would you travel 24 hours upside-down, crammed in a box?

Would you wait seven years in complete hiding waiting for a safe chance to flee?

There are those that did, and succeeded. 


When one questions the value of freedom, an equally important question arises.  “How far would you be willing go to ensure the liberty of someone else?”

Would you break the law if you had to?

Would you risk your own freedom?

Would you put your own family at risk?

Would you be willing to write articles and publicly speak out for freedom?

Would you simply donate money to others to take those risks?

Would you being willing to die or kill others?


Just how far do you think you would go……

No you don’t have to answer these questions (just yet anyway).


Please look over and refresh your memory on your responses.  As your classmates finish, we will begin a class discussion examining our reactions to these scenarios, as well as what they tell us about the nature of the underground railroad and the difficult choices that ordinary people made earning them a place in history.


Your responses:

            Scenario 1: Tubman


            Scenario 2: Rankin


            Scenario 3: Parker

                        Parker Source Response


            Scenario 4: Hanway

                        Hanway Source Response




What Would You Do?

Decision on the Road to Freedom



Main Page: Directions and getting started


Scenario 1: What would you do?



Scenario 2: What would you do?



Scenario 3: What would you do?



Scenario 4: What would you do?