The Underground RR – Before and After the Fugitive Slave Law

By Lynne Wilbanks, Mt. Brook High School



Objective:  Students will explain how the Underground Railroad increased in activity after the Fugitive Slave Law and enhanced the activities of abolition societies.  Students will describe the Underground Railroad and explain in what ways it differed from popular perception.


Standards:  Course of Study of Mt. Brook School System which correlates with Alabama Course of Study:   standard 12:  Identify causes of the Civil War from the northern and southern viewpoints.


Context:  A tremendous amount of terrific background information is available on the Historical Society of Pa. website under Background Material for teachers.  For this lesson, students should be familiar with the idea that thriving black communities existed in the North particularly in large cities like Philadelphia just miles from where African-Americans were kept in bondage.   Background reading at  states that about 20,000 free blacks lived in Philadelphia in 1840 and the free black population was increasing about 14% a year.  Students should understand that issues such as fugitive escapes and kidnapping of free blacks to be sold into slavery occurred throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.  The main objective of the Philadelphia Abolition Society formed in 1775 was to protect free blacks in the North.  Much of their success occurred working within the legal system and, on occasion, actually purchasing a slave’s freedom.   A Vigilance Committee was formed as an arm of the PAS to assist fugitive slaves.  These activities were frequently outside the strict limits of the law.  This organization became  inactive in the late 1840’s after Philadelphia race riots.  It was revived in 1852 after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850.



Discussion:  Ask student what they know about the Underground Railroad?  In the popular culture, how is it portrayed?  What images come to mind?  What was it purpose?  Teacher might want to make a list and put it aside to refer to at the end of the lesson.


These articles may be reproduced or many can be viewed on online depending on your internet access, reproduction capability, and whether students are working individually or with others. 

Students Read “Seeking Freedom in the Courts…


Possible questions::  What was the original purpose of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society?

How did Pa. emancipate their slaves acc to the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780?  What other dates are significant in the abolition movement?

What was the “reverse underground railroad?”

Give two examples of the PAS working “within the system.”


Read para 1 of Washington letter to Robert Morris. (from NEH Landmarks Coursebook)

Why is Washington unhappy? 

(Teacher’s note:  Washington took his slaves with him to Philadelphia and rotated them back to Mt. Vernon before they had been in the city for six months and could claim freemen status)

With whose activities is he unhappy?


Read  portion of the Fugitive Slave Law indicated (from NEH Landmarks Coursebook))

Acc to Section 1: what is Congress creating to settle these cases?

Toward the end of Section 6: What rights do slaves have in court?

Section 8: How will the commissioners be compensated? 

Summarize how the Fugitive Slave Act will impact the use of the courts to defend the rights of free blacks?


Read/view the following  documents.  Write a topic sentence and then use details from the documents (refer to them by number) to support your topic.  Answer the question: What can you infer about how and why the URR operated? 


Document 1:  image



Note:  Teachers might ask what this picture is and where is it?  At what stage of the journey is this?


Doc 2:  excerpt from

Read pg. 16 to top para of 18


Doc 3:  “Help the Fugitives” pg. 72 NEH Landmarks of the Underground Railroad


Doc 4:  “Four Large Hams Arrive in 1856” pg. 93 NEH Landmarks…read first four para


Doc 5:  “Letter from Augusta to Still”  pg. 105 NEH Landmarks…


Doc 6:  “Letter from E.F. Pennypacker”  pg. 106 NEH Landmarks…


Doc 7: go to

Doc 8: go to

(This document makes a ref to Alabama which has regional interest for my students)


Doc 9:  go to

This type of information is also available on pg. 45 of NEH Landmarks Coursework


Doc 10:  Pennsylvania Freeman, Dec 9, 1852

Pg. 69 of NEH Landmarks Coursework


Doc 11:  Harriet Tubman guiding slaves from the South


Teacher can require the students to use any number of documents to support their generalization.  Obviously, this can be adapted to fit any need.





Possible questions to stimulate discussion are shamelessly adapted from the Cost of Caring worksheet on the HSP website.

  1. Can you generalize about the fugitives?  Who were they?  Why were they escaping?  From where were they escaping?  How did they travel?
  2. Why do you think  William Still was so meticulous about questioning the fugitives and then recording their answers and details of their escapes?

Do you think there was a danger in doing so?  Why or why not? 

  1. If you were an abolitionist, how would you respond to the activities of Still?
  2. If you were a German or Irish immigrant, how might you respond?
  3. If you were a white citizen of Philadelphia with no strong feelings, but your black neighbors who seem pleasant and mind their own business left for Canada because of fear of slave catchers?
  4. If you are a southerner in Maryland who has his capital invested in property: land

And slaves?

  1. How has your conception of the URR changed after viewing this lesson?