From Slavechild to Freedom”

A Lesson for 3rd Grade Students by Stormie E. Carson


The purpose of this lesson plan is to explore the childhood of slaves who later used the Underground Railroad as a means to find freedom. 


The students will:

-          study the early lives of Henry “Box” Brown, Josiah Henson, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, and Leonard Black

-          compare and contrast family relationships, living conditions (food, clothing, treatment by masters/mistresses), slave duties, method of escape, destination, etc.

-          read excerpts from slave narratives

-          examine the root of determination of individuals to escape despite difficulty and risk of severe punishment, even death



The narratives from which this series of lessons is based can be found on the website:


The following narratives were used:


The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery (Leonard Black)


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)


The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad (Willaim Wells Brown)


Narrative of Henry Brown Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide (Henry “Box” Brown)


Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself

(Josiah Henson)


Summary: What follows is a brief summary of the major points of each figure whom will be the focus of these lessons.


Henry “Box” Brown


- born in 1816 in Louisa County, VA

- speaks kindly of his master

- never whipped a day in his life, nor was he worked to extremes; had sufficient food and clothing

- sold away from his mother at the age of 13

- childhood duties: personal servant to master and mistress; carried grain to be milled  (often 20 miles away); eventually learned how to work in the fields

- wife and children are sold away from him

- shipped himself north in a box 3 feet long  and 2 feet wide to Philadelphia where he is finally a free man


Josiah Henson


- born in 1789 in Charles County, MD

- as a young boy he witnesses father after being severely punished for hitting a white man (ear cut off); his father is then sold away

- claims to be treated well by his master

- sold away from mother and siblings (but eventually is returned to mother after he is taken ill)

- childhood duties: carry water to working men; hold horse plough; take care of master’s saddle-horse; worked in the fields when older

- detailed description of living conditions, food and clothing:

“The principal food of those upon my master's plantation consisted of corn meal, and salt herrings; to which was added in summer a little buttermilk, and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family, on the little piece of ground which was assigned to him for the purpose, called a truck patch. The meals were two, daily. The first, or breakfast, was taken at 12 o'clock, after laboring from daylight; and the other when the work of the remainder of the day was over. The only dress was of tow cloth, which for the young, and often even for those who had passed the period of childhood, consisted of a single garment, something like a shirt, but longer, reaching to the ancles; and for the older, a pair of pantaloons, or a gown, according to the sex; while some kind of round jacket, or overcoat, might be added in winter, a wool hat once in two or three years, for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes once a year. Our lodging was in log huts, of a single small room, with no other floor than the trodden earth, in which ten or a dozen persons--men, women, and children--might sleep, but which could not protect them from dampness and cold, nor permit the existence of the common decencies of life. There were neither beds, nor furniture of any description--a blanket being the only addition to the dress of the day for protection from the chillness of the air or the earth. In these hovels were we penned at night, and fed by day; here were the children born, and the sick--neglected. Such were the provisions for the daily toil of the slave.” – excerpt from Henson’s Narrative

- never considered running away until betrayed by master; he had always planned to buy himself free, but his master cheated him out of years of hard-earned money

- escapes to Canada with wife and four children with help along the way


Harriet Jacobs

-born a slave into a loving family (mother, father, grandmother)

- both parents die when Harriet is young

-as a child she is a personal servant to her mistress(es)

-cruelly tormented and verbally abused by master

- when she finally decides to escape, she must hide in an attic (no more than four feet high) for 7 years before she is able to successfully escape


William Wells Brown

-born in Lexington, MO in 1815

-son of slave owner

-has vivid memory of being 10 years old and hearing his mother being visciously beaten by overseer; overwhelmed by helplessness

-makes first attempt to escape when 12 years old; caught by dogs and whipped severely as punishment

-second escape attempt is made a few years later, this time with his mother; they are caught, sent to prison, and sold away from each other

-final attempt is made during his 20’s, this one successful

-helped along the way by a Quaker named Wells Brown

-arrives in Canada in 1834; frees no less than 69 other slaves

Leonard Black

-born in Annarundel County, MD before 1820

-when he is six years old, his mother and sisters are sold

-slave of a carpenter; mercilessly beaten by carpenter and his wife

-describes clothing: no hat, shoes, pants (lindsey slip only)

-literally fought his way to freedom

-escapes to Boston by foot, boat, and train

The Underground Railroad

The stories of these important figures can be told orally, read aloud, or read by the students.  Although the childhood of these people will be the starting point of the lessons, the escape stories themselves will be discussed in detail.  Because of the variety of means by which they come to freedom, it is the goal of this mini-unit to construct a definition of the Underground Railroad which is more vast than traditionally taught.  We will, at the end of this unit, collaboratively build a definition of the underground railroad.  The following quotes reflect the direction in which I plan to lead my class in building a definition of our own:

“[The Underground Railroad] refers to the movement of African-American slaves escaping out of the South and to the allies who assisted them in their search for freedom."

C. Peter Ripley,, The Underground Railroad (Handbook 156, Washington DC: National Park Service, 1998), 45.


"Far from being secret, [the Underground Railroad] was copiously and persistently publicized, and there is little valid evidence for the existence of a widespread underground conspiracy."

Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (orig. pub. 1961-- Lexington : University Press of Kentucky , 1996), 193.


“It is quite apparent, that the Underground Railroad was not a formal organization with officers of different ranks, a regular membership, and a treasury from which to meet expenses….In truth, the work was everywhere spontaneous, and its character was such that organization could have added little or no efficiency.”

Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Russell & Russell, 1898), 67, 69.