Was This House a Station on the Underground Railroad?

UNITED STATES

Lots of old neighborhoods make the claim: See that house? It was once a station on the Underground Railroad. Was it? (Washington Post)

What was the Underground Railroad? What was a station? Use our simple study guide to find out.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit, including today’s MapMaker Interactive map.

This terrific map shows general routes of the Underground Railroad, a series of loosely coordinated local networks helping African Americans escape enslavement in the mid-1800s. Map by National Geographic Maps

This terrific map shows general routes of the Underground Railroad, a series of loosely coordinated local networks helping African Americans escape enslavement in the mid-1800s.
Map by National Geographic Maps

 

Compare the map above with today’s MapMaker Interactive map. Why do you think so few Underground Railroad sites survive today?

Compare the map above with today’s MapMaker Interactive map. Why do you think so few Underground Railroad sites survive today?

Discussion Ideas

  • The Washington Post article identifies a house in Petersburg, Virginia, that some think was a station on the Underground Railroad. What was the Underground Railroad? Use our simple map study guide for some help.
    • The Underground Railroad was the network used by enslaved black Americans to obtain their freedom in the 30 years before the Civil War (1860-1865).

 

  • What was a “station” on the Underground Railroad?
    • Using the terminology of the railroad, people’s homes or businesses, where fugitive passengers and conductors could safely hide, were “stations.”
      • Those who went south to find slaves seeking freedom were called “pilots.”
      • Those who guided slaves to safety and freedom were “conductors.”
      • Slaves were “passengers.”

 

  • Take a look at today’s MapMaker Interactive map. Why do you think so few Underground Railroad sites survive today?
    • Answers might include:
      • It’s been more than 150 years since the Underground Railroad was active. Many buildings have been torn down.
      • Stations on the Underground Railroad were everyday buildings: family homes, churches, businesses. Even when being used to hide fugitive slaves, the buildings offered few clues that alerted either critics or supporters to their purpose.
      • The Underground Railroad was a secret network to begin with. Most conductors and pilots were unknown even when they were active, and left few written records.

 

  • According to the Washington Post, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor who has researched efforts to free slaves in Virginia, says, “I would be very surprised if there were any houses at all in the South that you could identify as providing havens for enslaved people trying to escape through the Underground Railroad.” What are some reasons why historians like Dr. Newby-Alexander are skeptical?
    • Answers might include:
      • In addition to the reasons listed above, the slaveholding South was much, much more hostile to the Underground Railroad than the North. Stations were even more rare, and even more secretive.

 

 

  • What artifacts or evidence might help historians positively identify the Pocahontas Island house as a station on the Underground Railroad?
    • Answers might include:
      • Written documents from writers during the 1850s about the house. (Still identifies Petersburg as an Underground Railroad site, but not any buildings specifically.)
      • Artifacts in the crawlspace of the Pocahontas Island house that can be positively dated to the 1840s-1850s and are associated with runaway slaves. These might include clothing; accessories such as jewelry or eyeglasses; utensils; books or maps; or money.

 

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Washington Post: Real or myth: An Underground Railroad house in the South?

Nat Geo: The Underground Railroad map study guide

Nat Geo: Selected Stations and Terminals on the Underground Railroad MapMaker Interactive

Nat Geo: Introduction to the Underground Railroad lesson plan

Nat Geo: A History of Slavery in the United States interactive timeline

National Park Service: Network to Freedom

One response to “Was This House a Station on the Underground Railroad?

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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