Museum Classroom: Letters to Harriet

Lesson: Letters to Harriet
Topic: Black History
Sub-Topic: Harriet Tubman’s role in the Underground Railroad and life in St. Catharines
Grades: 4-10

Note: This activity assumes a prerequisite knowledge of the history of slavery in North America.

Review: Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses located throughout the United States that was built by abolitionists and Freedom Seekers for the purpose of helping enslaved peoples escape slavery. It is sometimes helpful to reinforce that the Underground Railroad was not a railroad, nor was it underground.

The network usually led Freedom Seekers to Canada, where by 1834 slavery had been abolished.

The journey, usually made by foot, was long and dangerous. Often, Freedom Seekers would leave without much notice and of the few possessions they had, rarely took much with them. Additionally, the United States passed laws that made Freedom Seekers ‘fugitives’ and encouraged people called Bounty Hunters to capture and return Freedom Seekers to their owners.

Review: Harriet Tubman

Known as the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman was enslaved, escaped, and helped others gain their freedom as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. She is considered the first African American woman to serve in the military. 

Tubman’s connection to St. Catharines is significant. Tubman lived in St. Catharines and used the city as her base of operations from 1850-1857 and even attended the Salem Chapel – B.M.E. Church that still operates on Geneva Street. An important historical figure in both Canadian and American history, Harriet Tubman also worked for the Union Army during the American Civil War, serving as a cook, nurse and even a spy!

Learn more about her connection to St. Catharines here.

The establishment of a Freedom Seeker refugee community, many who arrived with her assistance, attracted much attention of abolitionists all over the world.

Find out more about the life of Harriet Tubman here.

Activity: Letters to Harriet

Imagine you could ask Harriet Tubman a question – what would you want to know about her life and her work? What might you say to her? What could we thank her for?

Compose a letter to Harriet Tubman – you might ask her about:

  • Her work on the Underground Railroad
  • Her family
  • Her life as a slave and her escape
  • What was her life in St. Catharines like?
  • Was she ever scared? How did she handle her fear?

Materials:

  • paper or daily journal
  • pencil or pen

Extension: Switch Letters

For a more in depth study of this important chapter in St. Catharines history, students can switch letters with other students in the class and write a response to each letter as Harriet Tubman. Students can visit the library or use web-based resources, completing research to best respond to the letters as Harriet might have!

Wrap-Up: Other’s on the Underground Railroad

While Harriet Tubman is regarded as a hero of the Underground Railroad, she wasn’t working alone and was successful with the help of many. Do a bit of research to find out a bit more about her supporters and Abolitionists who helped her.

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