Grades 2-6 Teacher Resources for Exploring the Role of the Underground Railroad in Erie County, Pennsylvania

Submitted by Kathleen Rankin for NEH Workshop


     This document is intended to provide resources for grades 2-6 teachers for the purpose of instructing students in the role of the Underground Railroad in Erie County, Pennsylvania history.  Much of the information presented is based on the excellent documentary DVD and website  that examines the history and people that were specifically connected with the Underground Railroad in northwestern Pennsylvania.   The focus has been narrowed from Safe Harbor and other resources to examine the roles of individuals  in Erie County.  Suggestions for activities and a listing of resources as well as some primary sources are included. 
     The study could last from 2-3 class periods to several class periods depending on the age of the students and the amount of depth each teacher chooses to go into.  Teachers using these suggestions should determine objectives based on their own curriculum and classroom priorities. The activities  do not need to be followed in chronological order.  The following PA standards are relevant to these activities and resources.

PA Standards:

o     Arts and Humanities

          9.1.5 E.  Knows and demonstrates how arts can communicate experiences, stories or emotions through the production of works in the arts

o     History

8.2.6. A.  Identifies political and cultural contributions of individuals to Pennsylvania history

Teacher Background

     Click on the following links to access necessary background information for the recommended activities:

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

         Safe Harbor timeline

Harry T. Burleigh biography

Harry T. Burleigh family chronology:

Classroom Activities:      

     Define terminology:  underground railroad, slave, fugitive, abolitionist, spiritual  (Read information at the Dickinson College website)  

     Depending on the grade level of the students, give an overview of slavery and provide time for discussion on their reactions.  View and discuss the image depicting an ad for a runaway slave.
Ask students to tell anything they have heard about the Underground Railroad and list their ideas.  Explain that as the study progresses their statements will be moved into a Venn diagram indicating whether their beliefs about the Underground Railroad are factual, folklore, or a blend of both.

3) Introduce and discuss the life of
Hamilton Waters, a freed slave who settled in Erie.   Discuss why a former slave might settle in Erie instead of remaining in the South.  Look at the newspaper notice that Waters placed in a Philadelphia newspaper to locate his wife.

4) Explore Hamilton Waters' role as an abolitionist in Erie and the Safe Harbor website portraying him aiding fugitive slaves to freedom.  Introduce students to the Underground Railroad and show the
routes that slaves may have traveled through Pennsylvania and neighboring states on their way to freedom in Canada.

5) Read and discuss the account of Joseph Long, another fugitive slave who lived in Erie before settling in Canada.  Click on the primary source document to read portions of the
original letter. Provide maps or an atlas to identify the locations where Lang lived and traveled through.

6) Introduce and discuss the significance of
Negro spirituals.
Introduce the life of
Harry T. Burleigh, the grandson of former slave Hamilton Waters. He is sometimes referred to as “the father of spirituals.”  He was born in  Erie, moved to New York City and composed and arranged music for many spirituals as well as other songs.. He is buried in Erie.  Explain that Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School in Erie is named in part for Harry Burleigh.  Consider inviting Charles Kennedy, a local expert on Burleigh's music and a Burleigh “impersonator,” to the school to perform Burleigh's songs. He can be contacted at:         
Kennedy's recording, “Heart and Soul, Love Songs, Art Songs and Spirituals” (1994) contains many traditional Negro spirituals that were written by Burleigh.
View a copy of
Deep River, a Negro spiritual arranged by Burleigh.  Locate a recording of the song and listen to it with students and discuss the meaning of the song.




Additional Resources:

Dickinson College resource page for more images, timeline and other imformation

Slave narratives (not local but very insightful)

Erie Observer   Civil War era newspaper that can be accessed to view articles and ads from specific issues

Pennsylvania history lesson plans, including ideas for the Underground Railroad

Erie County Historical Society

Hazel Kibler Museum    
Girard, PA museum that houses a small Underground Railroad exhibit

Steal Away-Music of the Underground Railroad (also can hear their recording of Wade in the Water)