Lesson Plan

Underground Railroad NEH Workshop

July 2006

Virginia Link-Pease


AUDIENCE: Lesson plan is for 12th grade, College Prep students.




Rationale: The lesson is to be presented as an historical adjunct to the reading of Beloved, by Toni Morrison, specifically in terms of understanding the actions of the fictional character, Sethe, who is based on Margaret Garner, in relation to the overall situations confronting enslaved mothers and their children.


Students will be able to:


1.  understand and define the climate of the antebellum south, which led to the development of the Underground Railroad


2.  understand the specific circumstances of enslaved women and their children


3.  compare and contrast the stories of selected mothers and their actions with those of Sethe. These will include Margaret Garner, upon whom Morrison based her character; Harriet Jacobs, a young slave mother; and two fictional characters, Roxanne (Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain) and Eliza ( Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe), the latter of which was based on an escaped slave who crossed the Ohio River to a safehouse in Ripley, Ohio, carrying her young son across the ice.


4.  take notes and keep an on going record of the students’ own thoughts and opinions


5.  debate the ethics of the actions of Sethe in the light of the related historical material. This may be presented in the form of an essay entitled, “What Would You Do?”; or they may write an editorial concerning the Margaret Garner case and the fictional Sethe case; or they may write a diary entry from the point of view of the mother in each situation, as well as from the pint of view of the slave holders. (Suggested writing assignments may be modified.)


6.  discuss the liberties an author may or may not take when basing a fictional character on a real or composite person




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Beloved,  Toni Morrison

Cincinatti Enquirer article about Margaret Garner, Jan. 29, 1856

Reminiscences, Levi Coffin

Garner Stories: A Note on Margaret and Sethe, Dr. Peter A Muckley

Cincinatti Enquirer, A Remnant of Slavery’s Horror, Oct. 2, 1998

Modern Medea, Steven Weisenberger

Who Speaks for Margeret Garner?, Mark Reinhardt

Law and History Review, Vol.19, No.1 (excerpts concerning the Garner trial)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs – A Life, Jean Fagan Yellin

Bound for Canaan, Fergus Bordewich

Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Artist’s Rendering of Margaret Garner, Thomas Satterwhite Noble





Students read and discuss the Cincinatti Equirer  article of 1856, telling the story of the Margaret Garner’s murder of her daughter and attempted murder/suicide of the rest of her children. Students take notes on the discussion, particularly concerning the ethics of her actions in the light of her situation. Each student writes a working paragraph of his/her opinion and feeling on the incident. Students also view the Noble painting of the scene.


Students read the excerpt from Levi Coffin’s Reminiscences concerning the Garner case.

Follow up discussion. Students revise, edit, add to their working commentary .( This revision process is done daily as the lesson progresses.)


Students read chapters 16, 17, and 18 of Beloved in class. Students now compare and contrast the story of Sethe with the story of Margaret Garner.


Students read Garner Stories: A Note of Margaret and Sethe, which outlines the details and differences of the Garner incident and the Morrison story of Sethe.


Additional information is derived from reading selected excerpts from the following materials, all of which deal with enslaved mother’s and their thoughts, feelings, actions concerning their situation and their children:

     Modern Medea, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, A Life, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.



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Having read the primary materials and the related materials, students finalize their working notes. These are then used as a basis to complete Objectives 5 & 6. These activities should reflect the understanding that the student has derived from the lesson and should demonstrate comprehension of the primary objective/rationale.