Using Digital Sources to Teach about Enslavement and the Underground Railroad

Using Digital Sources to Teach about Enslavement and the Underground Railroad in Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southern Indiana


Dr. David Childs and Dr. Eric R. Jackson, Northern Kentucky University


There are many secondary sources written on the topic of the Underground Railroad. However, there is only a limited number of primary sources, as these types of illegal activities were kept secret during its operation to avoid detection. Therefore, people did not talk or write about the Underground Railroad in any significant way until the system of enslavement was outlawed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Also important is the notion that most students can obtain a more sophisticated understanding of history by learning about significant events that took place in the region where they live through a variety of traditional and nontraditional sources. However, this plan's focus is only on the borderline states of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. Furthermore, this unit plan will highlight some of the important digital sources available for social studies teachers to teach their various students about the Underground Railroad in the regions of Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southern Indiana, as well as the nation at–large. From these sources, students will learn about powerful and dangerous activities of fugitives, abolitionists, and other individuals who were involved in the Underground Railroad movement, both African Americans and non–African Americans, in that part of the country such as Charles Bell, Henry Bibb, Levi Coffin, Calvin Fairbanks, John G. Fee, Lewis Hayden, Eliza Harris, John Parker, Reverend John Rankin, and Delia Webster. Also crucial to this lesson plan is that the regions of Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southern Indiana were selected because of the interconnected nature of the Underground Railroad in this part of the nation, particularly as a result of link of these areas to the Ohio River (or what many enslaved African American called "The River Jordan")

Scope and Sequence

This unit is designed for seven days or seven block periods for middle to high school (grades 8 – 12). Students will read background information on the lives and experiences of enslaved African American and obtain valuable information on how African American captives survived this horrible system of human bondage. In addition, the students will answer the following guiding questions: 1) what was the nature of the enslavement and freedom of African Americans?; 2) how did the Underground Railroad in Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southern Indiana begin and develop?; and 3) what was the legacy of the Underground Railroad in this region as well as the nation at–large?


Students will: a) demonstrate understanding of the major events and history of the enslavement period and of the Underground Railroad in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio; b) recognize the social construction of racial slavery and the demonization of African Americans in the 17th through 19th centuries and understand how it connects to contemporary racial stereotypes; and c) recognize how the media (historically) has advanced a certain value and viewpoint, as well as shaped ideas about racial identity. This unit is designed to be used in social studies classrooms and aligns with several state and national standards. The unit aligns with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Standards. The unit objectives will be based on these Four National Social Studies Standards:

  1. Culture

  2. Time Continuity and Change

  3. Individual Development and Identity

  4. Individual Groups and Institutions



The unit also aligns with Common Core standards (CCS). Some of these standards include:

  1. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: CCSS.ELA–LITERACY.RH.6–8.7

  2. Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: CCSS.ELA–LITERACY.RH.6–8.10


Because the unit covers a broad range of material, it can be easily aligned with the three State Social Studies Standards of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. For example, the objectives align with Kentucky's eighth grade social studies standard 2.19 (Geography) and 2.20 (Historical perspective). Standard 2.19 calls for students to focus on American geography through reconstruction as it relates to slavery and the Civil War. Standard 2.20 challenges students to think about the colonial period, slavery and diversity in history up to the mid nineteenth century. Various Ohio and Indiana middle grades and secondary social studies standards also can be easily tied into this process.

Materials Needed

Internet access to

  • Oxford African American Studies Center and other websites:
    1. Chronicles of Boone County, Kentucky
    2. Cincinnati and the Tristate
    3. Local History Services
    4. Roots Web
    5. African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky
    6. Cincinnati History Library and Archives


    Texts (Examples – J. Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Kentucky Border Lands; Keith P. Griffler, Forging Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley; Pamela R. Peters, The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana)

    Instructional Procedures

    The goal of this unit is to explore origins and development of the Underground Railroad in Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southern Indiana as well as its legacy in these regions, along with the nation at–large, using digital sources.

    Unit Procedures and Activities

    The unit will focus on the legacy of slavery in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Understanding the foundations of slavery can help students comprehend the struggle for racial equality today. People of African descent first came to what is now the United States in the early 1600s as indentured servants, a status that was markedly different from the slaves of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the early 1700s "Blackness" was criminalized in law and demonized in culture, and through an evolution of various laws, miseducation, and misuse of images. Students will be able to critically analyze digital primary and secondary sources and become historians by drawing their own conclusions from the artifacts they study. Each day primary sources will be integrated into the lesson (such as video clips, images, letters and song lyrics) to help students understand the Underground Railroad in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, and to draw their own conclusions from the sources while being guided by the teacher.

    Day One and Two

    This unit will begin by leading students through a series of activities exploring traditional African American Spirituals, including the song "Jordan River." During these days, the teacher will play spirituals when the students walk into the classroom to set the atmosphere for a rich discussion of African American history and culture. At the same time, the teacher will introduce popular cultural and other historical artifacts into the classroom makes for a really meaningful experience. A wonderful treasure trove of primary resources can be found on or other sites that are free of charge. This is the primary website where one can find various renditions of spirituals and other historical songs and videos. Such activities will lay a wonderful foundation for further exploration of slavery and the Underground Railroad.

    Some other exciting and meaningful examples of spirituals include "Go Down Moses," "Deep River," "Buked and Scorned," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," and variety of renditions of "Jordan River." The teacher should integrate other sources and materials with the lesson on Spirituals to help students understand their role in slave history. The teacher might include reading material and articles about Spirituals, paintings, documentaries or poetry. These primary and secondary source materials can be found quite easily on any Internet search engine.

    Another activity consists of students being assigned a partner and given a certain Spiritual to interpret and put into a historical context. They will explore the song's meaning and what it may have meant to the slaves. Students will then share responses with the whole group. Further, the students will read primary and secondary accounts of the Underground Railroad in Ripley, Ohio, and Kentucky and discuss how they are connected to spirituals. Building on the music, digital primary sources and discussion, the teacher will lecture (which should be interactive) on American slavery and the Underground Railroad.

    Day Three through Five

    The class will build upon the theme of slavery, escape, and the Underground Railroad. Teachers can open with a clip from Alex Haley's mini–series Roots (1977) that graphically portrays the escape of the slave character Kunta Kinte as well as with the KET Underground Railroad clip titled "Heroes of the Underground Railroad | Kentucky Life | KET." It is also important that teachers can locate runaway fugitive African American advertisements from or near the student's hometown or the general areas of Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southern Indiana. Each student will then take a few moments (3–6 minutes) to answer the following questions:

    1. What are your initial thoughts or reactions after viewing the film clip?;

    2. What connections can you make between what you have learned so far and the film clip?;

    3. Do you think a slave would have experienced this in antebellum Indiana, Kentucky, or Ohio?; and

    4. What connections can you make between the film and the runaway slave ads?


    Students will be placed in small groups based on an activity called corners of the room. In this activity, several spaces of the room will be designated to certain topics as they relate to slavery and the Underground Railroad, setting up station–like areas. The teacher will provide writing prompts based on various primary sources including: song lyrics, slave ads, the video clip, slave letters, children's literature on slavery and political cartoons. Each group is responsible for answering their writing prompt based on their assigned primary or secondary source and the material learned in class. Each student can have 10–15 minutes to complete this task. Afterward, each group will take turns in a round robin style to share their findings with the whole group. The corners of the room activity can merge right into a lecture to offer further direct teaching for the unit.

    Day Six and Seven

    The unit will conclude by showing the impact history and slavery has had on contemporary society through media and popular culture. It is helpful for teachers to begin by showing clips of twentieth century performers in black face and/or minstrel shows to offer a further context for the discussion. Also crucial is that teachers show some early twentieth century film clips or cartoons that contain blatant stereotypes, demonstrating how these ugly mischaracterizations still persist today. It is important to let students know that cartoons such as this were socially acceptable even in the recent past. After the video is shown the teacher will distribute discussion questions that students will explore in small groups. Afterwards each group will share their findings and response with the entire class. After the think, pair share discussion the instructor should prepare a lecture that shows the impact the legacy of slavery and racial prejudice has had on society today. How has popular media played a role in contemporary times in perpetuating stereotypes about African Americans? This will help contextualize the specific discussion about Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio and the Underground Railroad.


    During the seven–day unit plan implementation, the teacher should focus on review of the material and larger summative assessments, which might include a final exam, oral presentations, digital projects, or portfolios. As the United States becomes an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society it is vitally important that young people understand the significant impact that slavery and the Underground Railroad has had on their communities. The class should examine how many of the racial stereotypes prevalent in contemporary popular culture can be traced directly back to slave times. These prejudices can serve to reinforce old and negative ideas about how individuals from certain groups should behave or think. Indeed, Social Studies classrooms can become sites whereby students can engage in the many issues surrounding race. Young people can recognize their history and learn a more complete, well–rounded history about the key role the Underground Railroad played in their community.

    Finally, technology in the twenty–first century offers Social Studies teachers a unique opportunity that was not available in previous eras. They have access to primary and secondary source materials that can be critically analyzed in a classroom setting, allowing students to process things for themselves and become critical thinkers and young historians.

    Some Further Readings


    Some Online Resources

    • Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. New York: Author, 1849.
    • Bigham, Darrel E. On Jordan's Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
    • Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
    • Blight, David. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
    • Blight, David. A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2007
    • Childs, David Jason. 2009. The Black Church and African American Education: The African Methodist Episcopal Church Educating for Liberation, 1816–1893. Ph.D. dissertation, Miami University.
    • Gutman, Herbert. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
    • Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    • Franklin, John Hope and Evelyn Higginbotham. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, New York: McGraw–Hill Education, 2009.
    • Lucas, Marion. History of Blacks in Kentucky. The University of Kentucky Press, 2003.
    • Michna–Bales, Jeanine. Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.
    • Salafia, Matthew. Slavery's Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
    • Still, William. The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, Etc. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872.
    • Taylor, Nikki N. Driven toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016.
    • Trotter, Joe W. River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
      1. Digital Library on American Slavery
      2. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938
      3. Berea's History
      4. The Freedmen's Bureau
      5. The Kentucky Historical Society
      6. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
      7. N.C.Runaway Slave Advertisements
      8. Freedom on the Move
      9. Ohio History Connection
      10. African American Spirituals
      11. Ritual and Worship