Lesson Plans

Early National

The Abolitionist Movement: A Fight for Freedom

Author: Jennifer Byrne

School: Belmont Ridge Middle

Grade Level: 6th

Time Estimated: 3 days (90 minute periods)

Historical Background

Slavery has been a part of North American history as far back as exploration in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. And, for as long as slavery has existed on this continent, so has resistance. Throughout the 1800s, this issue of slavery comes to the foreground as the United States begins to expand west, as the need for labor becomes more prevalent, and as territories in the west begin to apply for statehood. Slavery started to grow. Those who had tolerated the exploitation of labor in the past were now faced with the moral and political ramifications slavery created. More and more citizens began to take a stand against what they saw as an inhumane, morally and democratically unsound way of treating people. The abolitionist movement in the United States calls for an immediate end to slavery.

The abolitionist movement took place between the 1830s and 1870. The movement gained much of its momentum after the Second Great Awakening when religious groups began to band together against slavery under the premise that slaveholding was morally wrong. William Lloyd Garrison, founder of The Liberator in 1831 asserted that, “Slave holding is an abomination in God’s sight…” Garrison worked with others to create the American Anti-Slavery society, whose goal was to promote non-violent protest of slavery in America. Other leaders of the abolitionist movement chose to speak from experience and recant their tales of slavery to promote emancipation and equality. Frederick Douglass was born in to slavery and worked until he escaped at the age of 21. He wrote several autobiographies which gave first hand accounts of what slavery was like. Though his written work had a major influence over the northern culture and inspired many to support freedom for African Americans, he is best known as an orator. His speeches impacted both white and black communities throughout the United States. While some used the power of the word to influence opinion, others took action to fulfill the goal of the abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman worked for years as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Like Douglass, she too had been a slave and knew what it was like to be exploited. She left her home and family in Maryland and dedicated her life to helping others escape. She made over 19 trips on the Underground Railroad and worked closely with John Brown to plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Those involved in the movement continued their efforts through the Civil War and the thirteenth amendment and did not stop until the fifteenth amendment was passed, granting suffrage to black men.


  1. Students will review and understand multiple perspectives of slavery (the slaves’ point of view, the abolitionist point of view and the view of the slave holder).
  2. Students will know three abolitionist leaders and their contribution to the movement against slavery.
  3. Students will be able to read and interpret primary documents having to do with the abolitionist movement.
  4. Students will show their understanding of primary documents through written assessment.

SOL Content

SOL USI.8d The student will demonstrate knowledge of westward expansion and reform in America from 1801 to 1861 by identifying the main ideas of the abolitionist and suffrage movement

  • Essential Understanding: The abolitionists worked to end slavery.
  • Essential Question: What were the main ideas expressed by the abolitionists?

SOL USI.9a The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by describing the cultural, economic, and constitutional issues that divided the nation.

  • Essential Understanding: Cultural, economic and constitutional differences between the North and the South eventually resulted in the Civil War.
  • Essential Question: How did cultural, economic and constitutional issues create bitter divisions between the North and the South?



Day 1: The Underground Railroad

Essential Question(s): How was the Underground Railroad used as a tool to reach the abolitionist goal of immediate freeing of slaves?

Day 1 Objectives:

  • Student will review and understand the multiple perspectives of slavery (the slave’s point of view, the abolitionist point of view and the view of the slaveholder).
  • Students will see how the Underground Railroad worked.
  • Students, by placing themselves in the role of a runaway slave and making critical decisions about freedom, will experience what life was like as a runaway.


  1. Opener: Reward poster for runaway slaves (1847):
    • Students will read the Reward Poster individually and make observations.
    • As a class we will answer “observation” questions such as:
      In what year did the slaves runaway? Who is missing? How many slaves are missing? How is Washington described? How is Mary described? How is Matilda described? How is Malcolm described? How long have they been slaves? Does the $200 reward apply everywhere?
    • Deeper questions about the document:
      Who made this? Why did they make this poster? What is the target audience? How might people react to this? In general, what does this ad tell us about slavery during this time period?
  2. Discussion: Why would a slave runaway? Why would a slaveholder work so hard to get slaves back? If a slave wanted to escape, how could they? (Students will be drawing from their prior knowledge of slavery in the United States)
  3. Underground Railroadmap from "Slavery in America" website c. 1860. The map will be shown on the overhead and as a hand out.
      As a class we discuss the intricate/extensive routes that made up the Underground Railroad. Students will be given notes on historical background.

      What would it be like to travel such far distances on foot on these routes?

      Talking Points for Underground Railroad will include:
      • Terminology: Agents (people who helped slaves find the railroad); Conductors (guides); Stations (Places where people stayed in hiding; Passengers (escaped slaves)
      • At it’s height between 1810 and 1850
      • Approximately 100,000 people escaped enslavement on the Underground Railroad
      • Many conductors knew only their part of the underground railroad, not the entire route
      • People traveled between 10 and 20 miles a day
      • During this time period it wasn’t unheard of for free blacks to be sold back into slavery
      • Used after the Civil War to return African Americans to the United States from Canada after the 13th amendment was passed.
  4. Experiential Activity: Students will be escorted outside to walk around the track one time (1/4 of a mile) and then asked to use scale on the map and calculate how many miles it would be on the railroad from Virginia to Canada, and then to make it relatable calculate how many times they would have to go around the track to complete that journey.
  5. When students return to the classroom, laptops will be set up at each desk. Students will complete the interactive webquest created by National Geographic through the Underground Railroad, making their own choices as they go. After they finish, we will come back as a class and debrief what they learned and how they felt.
  6. Debrief Question: What are some of the obstacles slaves faced on the Underground Railroad that did not exist for you on the track?
    (They didn’t know where they were going, they couldn’t read signs, they had to travel in the dark, and they were being chased.)
  7. Assessment: Choice Board
      Students will choose the assignment they want to complete. This allows them to target their own strengths and work on an activity that they are excited about. This also gives them ownership of their work. They will have until the end of the unit to complete this and turn it in, so three class periods or one week.

Day Two: Photographic Journey of Harriet Tubman

Essential Question(s): Why is Harriet Tubman considered an abolitionist? What were her contributions towards the abolitionist movement? Why is Harriet Tubman such a significant historical figure?

Day 2 Objectives:

  • Students will be introduced to main ideas expressed by abolitionists, specifically the push for immediate freeing of slaves.
  • Students will understand that both men and women contributed to the abolitionist movement.
  • Students will be exposed to several artists’ interpretations of Harriet Tubman and will make their own observations using primary sources.
  • Using background knowledge, students will create their own renditions of Harriet Tubman using symbolism and will then explain their work verbally to the class.


  1. Opener Part One: "Harriet Tubman: Moses" Painting
    • Students asked to make their own individual lists: “What do you see?” “Describe the woman in the painting.”
    • As a class we will create a list on the board of the details of the picture.
    • Deeper questions about the document:
      Who made this? When was this picture made? What is the target audience? What is happening at this time in history?
    Discussion: Who was Moses? In this picture how is Harriet Tubman depicted at Moses?
  2. Opener Part Two: Harriet: The Moses of Her People, Sarah H. Bradford.
      Students will first analyze this primary source. Title? When was it written? Who published it? What do the quotes on the front cover mean? Is it significant that it was published in the North?

      As a class we will discuss and explain why Harriet Tubman was called Moses and the parallels between the two leaders.
  3. Painting Analysis: One at a time students will be given copies of three different renditions of Harriet Tubman. The first image is of Harriet Tubman as a worker (created by Jacob Lawrence in 1940). The second image is of Harriet Tubman reaching for the stars (this was also created by Jacob Lawrence in 1940). We will end with an image of Harriet Tubman dressed in patriotic colors (created by William H. Johnson in 1945).
  4. With each of these images we will spend time as a class picking out the details of what is seen, and then having a discussion of the time period in which they were created and how the perception of her changes. She is depicted as a worker, strong and able to accomplish hard labor, as an idealist, a dreamer a navigator, “reaching for the stars” and as a patriotic hero. Why is this? Why would she have been painted in this way, so many years after her life as a conductor? Who is the artist that created the painting? Does the artist project a bias? What is the purpose behind creating this painting? What is the date of each painting? How has the perception of Harriet Tubman changed over time?
  5. I will finish our discussion by displaying an actual picture of her on the overhead and comparing/contrasting the paintings to what she actually looked like. Students will learn about her accomplishments throughout the class as we have a natural discussion about who she was, based on the way in which artists recreated her.
      Talking points on Harriet Tubman

    • Abolitionist, spy, scout
    • Born as a slave and raised in Maryland.
    • Had a cruel master
    • Escaped - $40,000 bounty offered to her captor
    • Conductor on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s
    • Over 19 trips on the Underground Railroad
    • 1858 collaborated with John Brown to help plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry
    • No distinguishing traits or characteristics which made it easy for her to travel undetected
    • Worked through the Civil War as a nurse and a spy
  6. Assessment: Create your own artists rendition of Harriet Tubman. Think of the qualities she possessed, which we have discussed in class today. Choose one and base your picture on that symbol. Give your work a title and be able to explain it to your classmates. Be creative! The more detail you use the better.

Day 3: William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass

Essential Question(s): Why did abolitionists believe slavery was wrong? What were the main ideas expressed by the abolitionists?

Day 3 Objectives:

  • Students will gain knowledge of the major ideas expressed by abolitionists including why they believed slavery was wrong.
  • Students will understand that both men and women contributed to the abolitionist movement.
  • Students will be exposed to the writings of two influential newspaper editors, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
  • Using background knowledge, students will create their own piece of newspaper expressing their own views about slavery using the perspectives of Garrison and Douglass to develop their ideas.


  1. Opener: Review of information learned about slavery (why the South wanted/needed slaves and why there was opposition to slavery. Review of Harriet Tubman and the beginning of the abolitionist movement.
      Deeper Question: Imagine that the government is doing something that you believe is wrong. What could you do to protest or try to convince the government to stop? What could you do to persuade others to join your quest to convince government officials to stop what they are doing?
  2. After our review, students will be put in pairs and given a copy of either “The Liberator to the Public,” a piece written by William Lloyd Garrison to The Liberator audience, or they will be given “To Our Oppressed Countrymen,” a piece written by Frederick Douglass as an editorial in North Star.
      Partners will be given time to read the letter together and will underline words they do not know or recognize, highlight important parts of the piece that make the author’s point, and circle information that reflects the ideals of the abolitionists.
  3. Primary Source Questions: Who wrote this piece? What is the purpose of this piece? What is the target audience? What is the date?
      We will reconvene as a class and everyone will be given a copy of both writings. We will read the piece of The Liberator first out loud as a class and those partner groups who are familiar with the work will help to facilitate discussion on important parts and we will clear up any confusion about words that they did not know, writing notes and definitions in the margins. As a class we will go through the North Star piece in the same way.
  4. Classroom Discussion:
      What arguments against slavery did abolitionists make? How were Garrison and Douglass' arguments similar or different from each other? How would you compare the effectiveness of this approach with what Harriet Tubman did? What would reactions to these newspapers be? Would different groups respond in different ways?
  5. Assessment: Assume the role of a member of The Liberator or The North Star staff. Write a response to the editorial given by either William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass.
    Pretend you are a citizen in New England or a citizen living in the South. Write a letter to the editor responding to what you read based on the feeling towards slavery in your region of the United States.
    Create a political cartoon illustrating the points made by William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass to be published in their newspaper.

    Student's work will be graded on:
    • Content: Writing is purposeful and focused with strong voice/point of view, and engages the audience.
    • Organization: Writing includes a strong beginning, middle, and end, with some transitions and good closure.
    • Vocabulary: Writing includes vocabulary pertinent to the SOLs and the unit being studied.
    • Grammar: Frequent use of varied sentence structure. Consistent agreement between parts of speech. Few errors in mechanics.
    • Editing: Work is spell checked and shows evidence of editing.


Group work – Allows students to experience different learning styles. Each student can provide their own interpretation of materials, and others can learn from their interpretations.

Choice Board – Targets ALL learning styles. Provides an opportunity for the same material to be covered in eleven different ways. Gives the student the responsibility for their own learning and allows them to choose an assignment that will work best with their learning style.

Variety of Primary Documents - Writings, paintings and posters target all learning styles, auditory, visual, kinesthetic.


  • Homework will be assessed.
  • There will be a test at the end of the unit.

References: Web

“The African-American Mosaic,” Library of Congress, 26 December, 2007

"The Frederick Douglass Papers" Library of Congress

“Abolition, Anti-Slavery Movements, and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy,” Library of Congress, 26 December, 2007

“Underground Railroad,” Wikepedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 7 November, 2007

"$200 Reward. Ran away, subscriber…Five Negro Slaves," Broadside (1847), Rare Book and Special Collections Division, African American Odyssey, Library of Congress

"Underground Railroad c.1860," Slavery in America, New York Life, 7 November, 2007.

The Underground Railroad, National Geographic, 7 November, 2007

Bernarda Bryson, Harriet Tubman called "Moses," 1934-1935, James A. Michener Art Museum, PA, 2005, 7 November, 2007, Library of Congress

Sarah H. Bradford, "The Moses of Her People," New York, 1886, Documenting the American South, 1 December, 2007

Jacob Lawrence, "Harriet Tubman series no.7," 1939-1940, 7 November, 2007

Jacob Lawrence, "Harriet Tubman series no.10," 1939-1940, Speed Art Museum, 7 November, 2007.

William H. Johnson, "Harriet Tubman, 1945," Smithsonian American Art Museum, 7 November, 2007

H.B. Lindsley, "Harriet Tubman full length portrait. c. 1860," Library of Congress, 7 November, 2007

William Lloyd Garrison, "From the Liberator. To the Public," The Liberator, January 1831, Africans in America, 29 October, 2007

Frederick Douglass, "To Our Oppressed Countrymen," The North Star, December 1847, 29 October, 2007

References: Books & Media

Foner, Eric and John A. Garraty, editors. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.