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Teacher Lesson Plans

Sailing to Freedom teacher lesson plans developed by participants

Required Readings for the Workshop

Walker, Timothy (ed.) Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021).

A new scholarly treatment of the maritime side of the Underground Railroad: little-known waterborne strategies and sea routes used by fugitives escaping enslavement in the Antebellum South, traveling along the U.S. eastern seaboard toward coastal ports and Abolitionist sanctuaries in northern free states. Taken together, these essays serve to reorient the traditional terrestrial interpretive framework of UGRR scholarship. 

Grover, Kathryn. The Fugitive’s Gibraltar Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

Presents a rich and story of New Bedford’s African American and the New Bedford Abolition movement. The book links the local history of the UGRR with national issues. It provides an important overview of African American history, New England history, and Antebellum American history. How did New Bedford come to be seen as a haven for fugitives, and was antislavery truly, as one whaling merchant put it, “the ruling sentiment of the town”? In this well-researched study, Kathryn Grover documents fugitive traffic in and around New Bedford and analyzes it within several spheres: the origins, persistence, and growth of the city’s African American community; the place of Quaker ideology in shaping the extent and character of local opposition to slavery; and the role of the city’s coastal trading and whaling industries in the presence of fugitives in the port. 

Suggested Readings

Beverly Hector-Smith, “Discovering the Life of Thomas H. Jones: A Slave for Forty-Three Years”

“When I was growing up in Boston, our many family gatherings were usually
organized, or at least attended, by my paternal grandmother, Nellie Lavinia
(Russell) (Hector) (Silva) Costa (1891–1979). She was the source of almost all
the family stories, and there seemed to be a constant stream of them about
everyone and everything. A favorite topic was Grandma Jones—Nellie’s own
paternal grandmother, Lavinia (Leslie) (Nooth) (Russell) Jones (c. 1831–1924),
who my grandmother greatly admired.”


Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Harvard University Press, 1998).

Bolster places sailors of color squarely at the center of the Atlantic maritime culture. Seafaring was one of the most significant occupations among both enslaved and free black men between 1740 and 1865. Tens of thousands of black seamen sailed on lofty clippers and modest coasters. They sailed in whalers, warships, and privateers. Some were slaves, forced to work at sea, but by 1800 most were free men, seeking liberty and economic opportunity aboard ship. The book offers both the numbers of black sailors found in the past and the extraordinary evidence documenting their work and lives. 

Cecelski, David. The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000). 

The first major study of slavery in the maritime South. The book illustrates the role of black waterman, fishermen, pilots, sailors, and ferryman, laborers and others who, from the colonial era through Reconstruction, plied the vast inland waterways of North Carolina and the upper reaches of the tidewater rivers. Black maritime laborers played an essential role in local Abolitionist activity, slave insurrections, and other antislavery activities. Their work was an important part of the waterway linkages on the UGRR. 

Hendrick, George and Willene Hendrick, editors. Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad as told by Levi Coffin and William Still (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Contains selected narratives from Levi Coffin and William Still, two of the most important contemporary chroniclers of the UGRR. The book provides basic information on the operation of the UGRR and its impact on slaveholders and Northern Abolitionist societies. The book also offers many personal accounts of the great collaborations between blacks and whites in American history. 

Kashatus, William. In Pursuit of Freedom: Teaching the Underground Railroad (Heinemann, 2005).

Beginning with a detailed overview of American slavery and the Abolitionist movement, William Kashatus puts the UGRR into context, distinguishing history from mythology while opening rich moral and ethical questions for consideration. By examining the times through social studies disciplines like geography, economics, civics, ethics, and Constitutional law, the book directs teachers and students to develop and express their interpretations of the UGRR through reading, writing, reflection, and projects. 

Lardas, Mark and Peter Dennis. African American Soldier in the American Civil War: USCT 1862-1866 (Osprey Publishing, 2006).

Approximately 200,000 African American troops fought for the North during the Civil War, comprising ten percent of the Union Army; approximately one-third of those men lost their lives. Civil War battlefields bore witness to countless acts of courage from the United States Colored Troops, most famously at the Battle of Fort Wagner, where the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (many of whom were recruited in New Bedford) distinguished themselves in combat. Through fascinating first-hand accounts, this title examines the journey of many African Americans from slave to free man to soldier, ultimately providing a fascinating insight into the impact they had on the war. 

Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad (The History Press, 2017).

Enslaved Virginians sought freedom from the time they were first brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619. Acts of self-emancipation were aided by Virginia’s waterways, which became part of the network of the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. Watermen willing to help escaped slaves made eighteenth-century Norfolk a haven for freedom seekers. Famous nineteenth-century escapees like Shadrack Minkins and Henry “Box” Brown were aided by the Underground Railroad. Enslaved men like Henry Lewey, known as Bluebeard, aided freedom seekers as conductors, and black and white sympathizers acted as station masters. Historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander narrates the ways that enslaved people used Virginia’s waterways to achieve humanity’s dream of freedom.  

Thompson, John. The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave: Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape (Penguin Classics, 2011).

The only known slave narrative written by a freedom seeker who sought refuge on a whaling voyage from New Bedford. Thompson used his time at sea to learn to read and to re-invent himself. 

Additional Resources

Fugitive Slave Traffic and the Maritime World of New Bedford

A research paper by Kathryn Grover, Prepared for the the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and the Boston Support office of the National Park Service

The Antebellum Coasting Trade and Fugitives from Slavery

Talk by Kathryn Grover for “New Bedford Maritime Heritage and the Underground Railroad” Connecting Oceans Academy, Ocean Explorium at New Bedford Seaport New Bedford, Massachusetts

Safe Harbor: Fugitives Among Friends

By Kathryn Grover: In February of 1854, New Bedford merchant Andrew Robeson asked a neighbor in Fall River for a favor–he needed help in hiding a man on the run, identity unknown. The man had come from Norfolk, Virginia by vessel. By that time slaveholders in more than one southern city had reached the limit of their endurance with New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Underground Railroad Resources in the US Theme Study

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Identifying historic properties associated with the Underground Railroad is an extremely varied task. To help the researcher understand the various aspects of the Underground Railroad, this context is divided into sections that focus on a complex but related series of historical activities and geographic regions, referred to generally as the Underground Railroad.

New England’s Hidden History: Boston Globe

By Francie Latour. In the year 1755, a black slave named Mark Codman plotted to kill his abusive master. A God-fearing man, Codman had resolved to use poison, reasoning that if he could kill without shedding blood, it would be no sin. Arsenic in hand, he and two female slaves poisoned the tea and porridge of John Codman repeatedly. The plan worked — but like so many stories of slave rebellion, this one ended in brutal death for the slaves as well. 

Frederick Douglass: New Bedford Historical Society

Born a slave in Talbot County Maryland, in 1818, Frederick Bailey would escape his chains in 1838 and become Frederick Douglass, one of the most notable men of the nineteenth century and the ideal of an American self-made man.

Includes links to primary documents.

Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad

Speech by Cassandra L. Newby-lexander Duration: (00:58:08). Enslaved Virginians sought freedom from the time they were first brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619. Acts of self-emancipation were aided by Virginian’s waterways, which became part of the network of the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. Watermen willing to help escaped slaves made eighteenth-century Norfolk a haven for freedom seekers.

African-Americans in the Maritime Trades: A Guide to Resources in New England

By Mary Malloy. Before the turn of the twentieth century, maritime industries provided the greatest opportunities for Black employment and investment in America. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, more African Americans were employed in the maritime trades than in any other industry. In New England, the representation of Black men on shipboard was proportionally far greater than in the general population. African Americans were represented on the vast majority of the region’s vessels as employees, investors or owners.

“Journey from Slavery to Statesman”: The Homes of Frederick Douglass

This lesson is based on the National Register of Historic Places registration files for Wye House, Nathan and Polly Johnson House (and photographs), and Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (and photographs), as well as other source materials on the life of Frederick Douglass. It was written by Jenny Masur, National Park Service, and edited by the Teaching with Historic Places staff. This lesson is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into classrooms across the country.

“The Whole Town Is Ringing with It”: Slave Kidnapping Charges against Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1839

Article discussing Betsy Gibson and Frederick Douglass and their associations with the Johnsons of New Bedford

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