History, Elements and People of the Underground Railroad

With the help of a visiting program from the Cincinnati Museum Center, 4-8 team students and staff members explored the history of slavery in the United States, with particular emphasis on the Underground Railroad.

A large timeline displayed in the St. Saviour Undercroft outlined key points in the history of slavery in America from the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown (1619) to the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing slavery (1865). Additional events and dates included the Declaration of Independence (1776), the patent for the cotton gin (1794), the first issue of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star (1847), and Harriet Tubman’s escape to the North (1849).

As part of the program, students pulled cotton bolls from a dried plant and then pulled seeds from the cotton. The average cotton plant is less than three feet tall, so workers had to stoop to pick the cotton and place it in a burlap sack carried on their backs. A good worker picked 300 pounds of cotton or more a day, meaning they would carry a substantial amount of weight on their back while stooping to pick cotton, often in 80- and 90-degree temperatures. The invention of the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds from the cotton balls but also made cotton growing so profitable that it greatly increased the demand for land and slave labor.

In their discussion of the Underground Railroad, students located the North Star and the Big Dipper on star charts. The North Star served as a beacon to freedom among escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad; it could be found by first locating the Big Dipper constellation. Students also learned how quilts of the period depicted key elements or markers in the railroad line such as the North Star, a river, or a safe place to stay. Students also received an overview in the life and some of the myths surrounding Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

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