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Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman (1823–1913)
nurse, spy and scout

It was a starless night when my husband Joe Bailey and I crept from our cabin to the nearby woods and headed for the meeting place. We had already said our goodbyes to our families.

In some ways I hated to go. I knew I’d miss my mother and father and friends. Our master wasn’t too bad. Not as bad as some slave owners. Also, I was afraid I’d be cold up north. It was warm in Maryland. It wasn’t all bad to live the way we lived. We were both excited and sad to leave.

We heard from people in the big house that our owner was selling Joe to a Virginia tobacco farmer, and I was afraid we’d be separated. I would die if they took my Joe.

Besides that, the most famous conductor on the railroad, Harriet Tubman, was leading this trip, so it was time to run for freedom. Harriet was a runaway slave herself.

We hurried to the meeting place behind the Smiths’ barn. The Smiths, the white people with the little farm next to the plantation, were part of the Underground Railroad.

We didn’t talk much. There were three other people on this “train.” A woman and two men. I nodded to Harriet. She silently checked my pack of cooked yams, rice balls and hard bread. We needed food for a day. We wouldn’t get to our first station until late the second night.

We walked all that night, and couldn’t use the roads. Harriet knew all the cow paths through this hilly country. At dawn, she said, “We’ll sleep here in this cave. We’ll be safe.”

It was smelly in there and I could hear bats flying around. We ate some food. I curled up with my pack for a pillow, snuggled against Joe and fell sound asleep before it was light.

About four o’clock that afternoon, we heard horses gallop by. They seemed really close to us. I jumped up, terrified, ready to run out. “It’s all right. They don’t know we’re here,” whispered Harriet.

At dusk we ate a little and started out again, still tired from the first night’s walk and from sleeping on the hard ground. Then we heard galloping horses on the path ahead of us. We scattered into the trees. They passed without stopping. My heart was jumping out of my chest. I threw up from fear.

Five minutes after they went by, we started out, but it happened again. More horses. Are they looking for us? Do they have dogs? The dogs will smell us.

Jim, one of the other runaways, said, “I’m going back. They’re after us. It’s better to return and live than to die on the way.”


Africans had been enslaved and brought to the United States from early settlement times. By the 1850s an organization of people was working to end or abolish slavery. They were called Abolitionists. Many of them helped slaves to run away to freedom in the North, or to Canada. Their organization was called the Underground Railroad. The railroad “conductors” brought the slaves to safe places, or ‘stations’ along the way. This story is about one couple’s race to freedom with the well-known conductor, Harriet Tubman.


Three thousand members of the Underground Railroad helped 75,000 slaves escape during the decade before the Civil War. A $40,000 reward was offered for capturing Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the railroad. But she could brag: “I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” She guided more than 300 slaves to freedom, including her old parents. She made 19 dangerous trips into the South. She later served as a spy, scout and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1863, during that war, President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave all slaves their freedom.


1. Do you know what other countries had slavery?

2. Is the Underground Railroad a form of opposition to government?

Harriet pulled out a pistol and said, “Sorry, you’ll be free or you will die.” She explained that if he returned, the owners would find out more about the Underground Railroad when they tortured him. “Nobody can get off Harriet Tubman’s trains.” She said, “The first time I tried to escape with my brothers, they became too afraid and made me return with them to slavery. Ever since that time I’ve carried a gun.”

We went faster now. Two hours before dawn, we arrived at our first station, a small unpainted farm house with a new barn behind it. A light was in the front window.

Harriet went up to the door, knocked, and used the passwords, “A bird is in the barn.” Mrs. Green, a heavy middle-aged lady opened the door and motioned us all inside. It felt strange for me to go in the front door of a white person’s house. That wasn’t allowed back home.

She heated up some vegetable stew. It was heavenly. “It’s not safe to sleep in the barn. The slave catchers have been coming through regularly,” she said. She was a kindly soft woman.

So she brought us up to the attic. I’m glad she didn’t put us in the cellar. Attics smell dusty, but a lot better than damp cellars filled with carrots, beets, potatoes and mold. She gave us mats to make the floors feel softer. She was an angel, that woman.

But soon, we were awakened by barking dogs, running horses and shouting men. They rapped on the door downstairs. We could hear everything through the thin floors.

“Ma’m, sorry to bother you, but we’re following the trail of some runaway slaves. The trail seems to come right on to your property. Do you mind if we look around?”

“No, go ahead. I thought I heard some noise during the night. But I didn’t get up. I’m all alone and I don’t look for trouble at night.”

They searched the barn. I was shaking again and afraid I’d throw up all that stew in that nice lady’s attic. Joe held me tight to keep me from moaning out loud.

The catcher came back to the door. “Thank you, ma’m, for your cooperation. The dogs want to go on up this creek. Here’s a poster with all the information. If you hear of anything, please tell the sheriff.”

They went away. We fell asleep again.

That evening, Mrs. Green closed all the curtains before we came down. She handed us the poster. It named all of us and said that they were giving a $2,000 reward for the capture of Joe. She said, “I thought we might have visitors and if they brought dogs, they would smell people. So after you went to sleep, I washed the steps and the walk with strong-smelling pine needles and camphor.” She had thrown them off the scent.

Because the searchers had gone up the creek, Harriet changed her plans and took us on a more round-about route. It would be 18 miles instead of the easy 12 to the next station. We were close to freedom now. I couldn’t wait, but I was still scared.

We reached the free state of Pennsylvania as the sun came up. Harriet said it reminded her of her first trip to freedom. “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person since I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields and I felt like I was in heaven.” She was right. I felt that way too.

In Philadelphia they told us about the new Fugitive Slave Law. It was no longer enough to reach a free state. Passed in 1850, the law said that people convicted of helping slaves could be imprisoned or fined so heavily that they would lose everything they owned. So a runaway slave was no longer safe in the North; we had to go all the way out of the United States.

It was not safe to stay where that new law tempted men to catch us for rewards of thousands of dollars. Joe and I decided to go to Canada. Harriet said she’d take us. With a price so high on Joe, we weren’t safe. The other runaways decided to stay in Philadelphia. “I’d be too cold up in Canada. I’d freeze to death,” Jim said.

Harriet picked up five more passengers to go to Canada with us. For this part of the trip, we rode a real train. It was great fun for me, but poor Joe couldn’t enjoy it. That reward money was a heavy burden. He was so scared that he couldn’t even raise his eyes to look at beautiful Niagara Falls when we passed them going into Canada.

Everything is fine now. We own 10 acres up here, have a little house, a barn and three children. God bless Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.


conductorperson who directs, one who collects the fares in a bus or train
crept(past tense of creep), to move slowly, with the body close to the ground
runawaya slave who has gotten away from the slave owner
snuggleto nestle, to cuddle, to get close to
pistola small gun
tortureto inflict severe pain or punishment
atticthe space or room immediately below the roof of a building
cellaran underground room used for storing things
moaninga low sound made in pain or fear
postera sheet of paper announcing something, for display in public
scentthe characteristic smell of something
glorybeauty, magnificence
fugitivea person who is fleeing or escaping from something
temptappeal to; attract, persuade or try to persuade by the prospect of pleasure or advantage
burdensomething carried, a heavy load



Circle the letter of the best answer.

1. The main idea of “The Underground Railroad” is that...

a. many people helped runaway slaves go to freedom in the North or Canada.

b. the slave catchers were very angry people.

с. slave owners offered big rewards for the return of their slaves.

2. The most important thing in life to the narrator of the story was...

a. to live in a warm place.

b. to be with her husband Joe.

c. to travel around and ride on trains.


1. What was the worst thing about slavery?




2. If you had been a slave owner in 1850, what would you have done?




3. How would you characterize Mrs. Green?




4. Why was there such a big reward for capturing Harriet Tubman?





Decide if the statements are true or false. Write the sentence from the story that supports your answer.


Harriet Tubman led people on the Underground Railroad. True

The most famous conductor on the railroad, Harriet Tubman...

1. Joe’s wife was afraid she and Joe would be separated if they stayed on the plantation. ______



2. The runaway slaves carried food with them. _____



3. Harriet Tubman didn’t know her way in this part of the country. _____



4. Harriet wouldn’t let Jim, one of the runaway slaves, go back. _____



5. Their first station was a big house in a city. _____



6. The storyteller preferred sleeping in attics to sleeping in cellars or caves. _____



7. The poster the catchers carried didn’t have any names on it. _____



8. Joe enjoyed his ride on the train going up to Canada. _____




Details. Read the sentences. One or two words in each sentence are not correct. Find the word or words and cross them out. Write the correct words.

1. The owner planned to sell Joe to a tobacco farmer in Georgia. __________________

2. Harriet had been a slave owner herself. ________

3. The runaways were being chased by men in wagons. __________________

4. When Jim wanted to turn back, Harriet stopped him with a knife. __________________

5. The slave catchers searched the house of Mrs. Green. ________________

6. They got into the free state of New York as the sun came up. ________________

7. The new Fugitive Slave Law rewarded people who helped slaves to run away. ________________

8. The runaway couple live in Philadelphia at the end of the story. _________________


Fill in the space with the best word from the list below.

1. We didn’t want anyone to see us leave so we ______________ out of the cabin.

2. We were slaves on a big ______________, not a small farm.

3. Harriet was a careful conductor, she ____________ the details for the trip: the way, food, the stations.

4. The horses made a lot of noise when they went by fast, ________________ along the road.

5. The lady kept her carrots, beets, and potatoes in the ________________ because it was cool there.

6. When I get scared, it is hard for me to keep quiet. I _________________ and cry.

7. Mrs. Green was afraid the slave catchers’ dogs would smell our __________________.

8. Some good people were _________________of helping slaves escape, and were put in prison.



Students take the parts. Plan the dialogue or improvise.

A. In the cave: Harriet telling Joe Bailey’s wife she can’t run outside when they hear horses.

B. Harriet and Jim: Harriet pulls gun and tells Jim he can’t leave. Jim wants to go back.

C. Mrs. Green and Harriet: making plans for the evening, where to go and how.

D. The slave catcher and Mrs. Green: he wants to come in the house. She stops him.

E. Joe Bailey and his wife: she wants to stay in Philadelphia. He wants to go to Canada.

F. Joe Bailey on the train: his wife tries to get him to enjoy the ride.


1. l. a; 2. b

3. 1. True. Joe might be sold and I feared we’d be separated. 2. True. We needed food for a day. 3. False. Harriet knew all the cow paths through this hilly country. 4. True. Nobody can get off Harriet Tubman’s trains. 5. False. We arrived at our first station, a small unpainted farmhouse. 6. True. Attics are dusty but a lot better than damp cellars. 7. False. She handed us the poster. It named all of us. 8. False. Poor Joe couldn’t enjoy it.

4. 1. Georgia; 2. owner; 3. on horses; 4. pistol; 5. barn; 6. Pennsylvania; 7. punished; 8. Canada

5. 1. crept; 2. plantation; 3. checked; 4. galloping; 5. cellar; 6. moan; 7. scent; 8. convicted

Looking ahead to freedom, Negro runaway slaves might have sung this song.

Woke Up This Morning With Freedom On My Mind

Singin’ and prayin’ with my mind stayed on freedom
Singin’ and prayin’ with my mind stayed on freedom
Singin’ and prayin’ with my mind stayed on freedom
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!

Well, it ain’t no harm to keep your mind stayed on freedom
Ain’t no harm to keep your mind stayed on freedom
Ain’t no harm to keep your mind stayed on freedom
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!

Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!

By Myrtis Mixon

From Americana Historical Spotlights in Story and Song

Submitted by Erin Bouma