Welcome - Introductory Experience - Slavery Introduced - Clara's Quilt - The Secret to Freedom.


In the years just prior to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad helped thousands of escaping slaves find their freedom. Because these travelers needed to be invisible to authorities and informants, secrecy and signaling systems were critical to making this "railroad" function. Not surprisingly, many of these signals were carried using familiar cultural items: quilts and songs.

Quilts and quilt-making have a unique place in American culture, especially that of African Americans. There is increasing evidence that quilt patterns were used as a secret code system to aid fugitive slaves on their journey of escape via the Underground Railroad. This unit is a set of lessons incorporating 'hands on activities' that honor these stories passed down orally through the generations. We hope they will motivate students to discover the powerful history of a repressed culture.

Our unit uses the theme of quilts to explore the relationships of pattern in geometric forms, the visual arts, the basic scientific observation of the movement of the sun and moon, the power of repetition to create imagery and poetic description in prose. It will also serve as an introduction to the map of the United States. Finally, we will look at some of the ways songs helped escaping slaves learn the information they needed to make their journey north successful.

The lessons for this unit cover several academic areas. Ideally, they should be used as a group, but one or more individual lessons may also be used independently. To assist with planning, we have also provided:

  • A book list containing titles essential to one or more lessons, as well as numerous selections for additional reading.
  • A materials list showing the materials required for each lesson.
  • A brief historical background on the Underground Railroad for teachers.
  • "Printables" - these include printed materials for use by students as well as letters and other information pieces to be sent to parents. The printables appear with their respective lessons.

These resources are available either from the main unit menu or within specific lessons, as appropriate.

One final note - even today, slavery is a topic which can elicit strong responses in both African American and white cultures. This unit's "hands on" activities may require some sensitivity on your part, especially among younger students who may have trouble separating "just pretend" from real feelings. Similarly, explaining the unit to parents in advance can help ensure that they are supportive of the project and its goals.


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