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Eyewitness to History Lesson Plan: Fugitive Slave Narratives
The narrative, Runaway Journeys, names two of the best known and readily available narratives written by fugitive slaves: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent/Harriet Jacobs. "Eyewitness to History: Fugitive Slave Narratives" is a lesson plan that may be used in History or Language Arts classes in conjunction with or as a follow-up to reading the narrative. Students will read two slave narratives, taking notes on their migration to freedom on a Venn Diagram (so that similarities and differences emerge) and on a map (to compare and contrast the distances, geographical barriers, and population centers that each fugitive encountered).
Grade Levels:Middle school, grades 6-8
For use with:Runaway Journeys
Concentration Area:Language Arts
Concentration Area:Geography
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • Ways slavery shaped social and economic life in the South after 1800 (e.g. how the cotton gin and the opening of new lands in the South and West led to increased demands for slaves; differences in the lives of plantation owners, poor free black and white families, and the enslaved; methods of passive and active resistance to slavery; escaped slaves and the Underground Railroad).
  • Different economic, cultural, and social characteristics of slavery after 1800 (e.g. the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the ending of the Atlantic slave trade, how slaves forged their own culture in the face of oppression, the role of the plantation system in shaping slaveholders and the enslaved, the experiences of escaped slaves).
Time required
One 50-minute class period
Materials needed
  • Runaway Journeys
  • Copies of the narratives of Frederick Douglass 2-027 and Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) 2-010
  • Venn Diagram comparing fugitive slave narratives
  • Map of the continental United States with states outlined
  • Atlas of the United States and Canada
Anticipatory Set

  • Be honest with students that the readers of slave narratives were from the Victorian era, so sentence structure in the narratives is often complex and vocabulary may be difficult.
  • Remind students that they usually don't appreciate people changing things they have said or written, and that it's important to hear the voices of the fugitive slaves through the words they chose, telling their stories as they wished it to be known.
  • Challenge students to put into perspective the inconvenience of reaching for a dictionary or having to struggle with a sentence with the perils faced by fugitive slaves. Remind them that if modern readers give up on these narratives, then the voices of the enslaved will be silenced, not by hateful racists of the past, but by us.
    1. Play "Follow the Drinking Gourd," or another song associated with fugitive slaves. Students can find a midi sound file, along with links to sheet music, explanations of the lyrics, and NASA teacher materials at:
    2. Explain that the song helped slaves, who had been kept illiterate and ignorant of geography, find their way to the North and freedom. Once fugitive slaves arrived in the North, despite the hardships they faced, many took the time to write or dictate their memoirs, or narratives. Ask students which fugitive slaves they have heard of before. Explain that they will be reading and comparing two nineteenth century fugitive slave narratives.

    1. Ask students to read the narrative, Runaway Journeys
    2. Assign students to read two fugitive slave narratives. They may use those written by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs available in print or online or those written by other fugitive slaves (see Related Works). You may decide whether to assign the work to be done in pairs or small groups, if you feel that will provide support to the students as they read. You also may elect to give students free choice to read narratives by any pair of fugitive slaves mentioned in the narrative or to assign pairs of readings to selected students.
    3. Provide students with copies of the Venn diagram and outline map.
    4. Ask students to use the Venn diagram to take notes about the two narratives, including the things that are unique to each fugitive slave and the things that they experienced in common (in general; details may vary). Have students look for the following:

      1. the state and community where the individuals were enslaved;
      2. the types of work they did as slaves and how many years they endured slavery;
      3. if they were literate before they escaped and the means of their escape;
      4. whether the individuals were assisted in any way along the routes of their escape;
      5. if they received help at their final destinations;
      6. if the individuals experienced discrimination once free;
      7. the types of work they did for wages; and
      8. why the individuals wrote their narratives.
    5. Ask students to take notes on the reverse or margin of their maps about the beginning locations and final destinations of the fugitives' journeys, and any landmarks (towns, cities, rivers, mountains) that they may mention. If students find few details about the journey, ask them why fugitive slaves might not have been willing to give out details about their route (being aware of the publication date of the narrative). Direct them to calculate the distance covered. Then, ask students to plot the two escape routes on their map in different colors with an explanatory key, marking the names of the beginning and final points in the journey and any major landmarks along the way.

    You may assess students' work in a number of ways, including oral presentations (if the class has looked at a large number of slave narratives) or study guide questions (if using only two narratives for the whole class). However, a traditional five-paragraph essay that compares and contrasts the lives and journeys to freedom of the two fugitive slaves studied makes a good cumulative evaluation. You can grade essays on a twenty-point scale (which may be multiplied by five to convert to 100-point scale or for conversion to letter grades) using the following rubric:

    Grading Element and Total Possible Points (10) Excellent (9-8) Good (7-6) Fair (5-1) Not Satisfactory (0)
    Written Assignment:

    Historical Comprehension


  • Excellent historical analysis of information from both narratives
  • Excellent command of facts
  • Comparison and contrast of details
  • Demonstrates:

  • Good historical analysis of information from both narratives
  • Good command of facts
  • General comparison and contrasts
  • Shows:

  • Fair historical analysis of information from both narratives
  • Fair command of facts
  • Little relationship between items compared or contrasted
  • Shows:

  • Little historical analysis of information— may only refer to one narrative
  • Little command of facts
  • No relationship between items to be compared and contrasted
  • No Work
    Written Assignment:

    Technical Writing Skills

    Shows excellent:

  • Compositional structure
  • Sentence structure and variety
  • Vocabulary use
  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation
  • Shows good:

  • Compositional structure
  • Sentence structure and variety
  • Vocabulary use
  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation
  • Shows adequate:

  • Compositional structure
  • Sentence structure and variety
  • Vocabulary use
  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation
  • Shows inadequate:

  • Compositional structure
  • Sentence structure and variety
  • Vocabulary use
  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation
  • No Work

    Related Works
    Additional narratives, including those mentioned in the narrative are available at this site or at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

    • Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, Publisher, 1859. 3-007
    • Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Written by Himself. With an Introduction by Lucius C. Matlack. New York: Published by the Author, 1850.
    • Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Manchester: Printed by Lee and Glynn, 1851. 2-012
    • Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.
    • Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man. Twenty-Nine Years a Slave. Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. York, Pennsylvania: P. Anstadt & Sons, 1895. 6-006
    • Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. London: William Tweedie, 1860. 2 -023
    • Clarke, Lewis and Milton. Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, Sons of a Soldier of the Revolution, During a Captivity of More Than Twenty Years Among the Slaveholders of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America. Dictated by Themselves. Boston: Published by Bela Marsh, 1846.

    Benjamin Drew. A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by themselves, with an account of the history and condition of the colored population of Upper Canada. 2-031

    • Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Narrated by Himself. Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849. Henson, considered the source of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin also published the following:
    • "Uncle Tom's story of his life." An autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom"). From 1789 to 1876. London, Christian age office, 1876.
    • Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave; Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. Auburn, New York: Derby and Miller, 1853.
    • Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington. 3d ed. Westport, Connecticut: Negro Universities Press, 1971.
    • Still, William. The underground rail road. A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, & c., narrating the hardships, hair-breadth escapes and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom, as related by themselves and others, or witnessed by the author; together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders, and most liberal aiders and advisers, of the road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872. 2-026
    • Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-Slavery Labours in the United States, Canada, & England. London: John Snow, 35, Paternoster Row, 1855.

    Print versions are available for many of the narratives listed above and others including:

    • Andrews, William L., ed. Six Women's Slave Narratives. Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
    • Blackett, R.J.M. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
    • Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
    • Larison, Cornelius Wilson. Silvia Dubois: A Biografy of the Slav who Whipt her Mistres and Gand her Fredom. Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
    • Nichols, Charles Harold, comp. Black Men in Chains: Narratives by Escaped Slaves. New York: L. Hill, 1972.
    • Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Puttin' on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northrup. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
    Interdisciplinary Links

    • Geography: Students may wish to combine all the fugitive slave journeys onto a large, wall-size map of North America, using either different colored markers, or different colored yarns and pushpins, making certain that they include a key. Images of many of the fugitive slaves may be printed out from the UNC site, as part of the key, if desired.
    • Music: In collaboration with the music teacher, students could locate and learn a selection of songs used by fugitive slaves and the Underground Railroad, either for direction, inspiration or as code. Examples of songs include "Follow the Drinking Gourd", "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees", "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", "Wade in the Water", and "Go Down Moses".
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