The Underground Railroad for Kids
From Slavery to Freedom with 21 Activities
By Mary Kay Carson
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2005 Mary Kay Carson
All rights reserved.
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Fleeing a Life Of Bondage
Harriet Tubman was born a slave around 1820 or 1821. Like most slaves, she didn't know her exact birthday. It's hard to keep track of dates when you can't read or write and don't have a calendar. Harriet's parents named their daughter Araminta. But by the time she was a teenager she was called Harriet. As a slave, she had to answer to whatever name her masters wanted. But Harriet said that when God spoke to her, he called her Araminta.
Harriet's family lived in one of the shabby slave cabins near the swamp on a plantation in the Eastern Maryland town of Bucktown. Harriet spent her first years barefoot and dressed in nothing more than a long shirt made of itchy cloth. When Harriet was about six, her master sent her to work for a woman who wanted a slave girl to babysit and do housework. Harriet was so young that she could barely pick up the baby. Harriet's new mistress, Miss Susan, was demanding and cruel. When the house wasn't cleaned to her liking, Miss Susan hit Harriet on the face and neck with a whip. Young Harriet had to sit up all night rocking the fussy baby's cradle while Miss Susan slept with a whip under her pillow.
Miss Susan eventually sent Harriet back to her owner, saying she wouldn't buy a slave so unfit for housework. So Harriet's owner hired her out to a string of harsh masters who put her to work running muskrat traps, cutting wood, and working in the fields. Harriet grew from a "difficult child" into a stocky, strong young woman known for her rebellious streak. Harriet's parents had been born into slavery, too. But Harriet's grandmother was born a free person in West Africa. She had been one of the millions of captured Africans shipped to America and sold into bondage. Perhaps Harriet remembered her ancestors' freedom, because she, too, yearned to be free.
Her rebelliousness nearly got her killed as a teenager. Harriet had tried to block an overseer, or slave boss, from chasing after a runaway. The furious overseer picked up a two-pound weight and hurled it at the fleeing slave. But the weight slammed into Harriet's forehead instead. It left her with a permanent head injury that caused sudden blackouts, or "sleeping spells," the rest of her life.
Harriet met and married John Tubman around 1845. He was a free black, and Harriet was permitted to live with him off the plantation. As a hired-out slave, she got around more than most slaves did. And Harriet was allowed to keep some of the money she earned. Her life was pretty good — for a slave. But Harriet knew the truth. She was property. And her owner could sell her at any time to anyone. Two of her sisters had already been sold to a slave trader and taken away in chains, and Harriet had had nightmares ever since. She dreamed that horsemen came and dragged screaming women and children away from their families. The horsemen took the slaves away to a worse fate in the Deep South. Harriet Tubman refused to live that nightmare. Somehow, she was going to get free.
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The Atlantic Slave Trade
Henry the Navigator was a Portuguese prince who'd heard from traders that West Africa was a land full of gold and treasures. The sailors he sent to explore the land in 1441 were the first Europeans to visit the western coast of Africa. (This was fifty years before Columbus sailed for America.) While the Portuguese sailors did find Africans who were willing to sell gold, the seamen soon found a different kind of wealth: slaves.
When the sailors arrived on Africa's western coast, they discovered that local kings ruled their lands with powerful armies and organized political systems. Slaves (mostly enslaved war captives) were one of the products sold in their trading networks. When the Portuguese arrived, West African rulers sold their slaves to the Europeans as well. In 1481 a West African ruler gave the Portuguese permission to build a trading outpost called Elmina Castle in what is today the country of Ghana. It was the first of many "slave factories" built by Europeans along the west coast of Africa. Hundreds of thousands of captured Africans were locked up in Elmina Castle. There they waited in misery to be put on Portuguese and Spanish (and, later, Dutch and English) ships. Their freedom was traded for gold, pottery, guns, knives, rum, and cloth.
The Portuguese and the Spanish began buying more and more African captives by the 1500s. Instead of taking them to Europe, however, the slave traders were instead hauling their human cargo to colonies in the New World. The business of shipping enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas came to be called the Atlantic Slave Trade. It was a dangerous, profitable, and devastating business that forever changed the world.
The European slave traders and West African kings amassed huge fortunes through the fast-growing Atlantic Slave Trade of the 1600s and 1700s. Powerful West African "slave kingdoms" grew larger as they conquered their enemies with guns purchased with slave profits. Enslaved Africans were no longer only being captured during wars. They were being rounded up solely for profit in slave raids. This devastated the lives of millions of West and Central Africans. The villagers lived in constant fear of being rounded up and captured by bands of armed men. Entire villages were wiped out by slave raids and wars of conquest.
* One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.
* Olaudal Equiano, a West African, recounting his capture, at age 11, from the area now known as Nigeria in about 1756
The Voyage of No Return
Once kidnapped, a captured African's misery multiplied. Many Africans were taken from their homes far inland. The slave traders shackled these captives together and marched them toward the coast. Sometimes they marched many hundreds of miles in chains or shackles and were given little to eat. Disease and starvation killed many. Those who resisted were whipped or killed. Half of the captives died on these shackled marches, which were called "coffles."
Those captives who survived the coffles and made it to the coast were often locked up in the dungeons of slave trading posts, such as Elmina Castle. There they waited to be sold. Some might wait a year in one of the filthy, crowded, dark dungeons. When a European ship arrived seeking slaves, the captives were marched in chains to the ship. These small sailing ships carried 200 to 300 human beings as cargo, as well as a crew. Most of the captives were chained together and stuffed into a hot, airless hold. Human beings were stacked on shelf-like bunks with ceilings so low that the captives could barely sit up or move. This was their home for the entire voyage. The so-called Middle Passage across the Atlantic took at least two months — sometimes four.
* I continued to travel, sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries and various nations, till, at the end of six or seven months after I had been kidnapped, I arrived at the sea coast ... The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror ... I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard), united to confirm me in this belief.
* Olaudah Equiano, a West African, recounting boarding the slave ship at age 12, in about 1757
The journey across the Atlantic was horrifying for the captives. Aboard ship, the Africans were fed little and whipped frequently, and they were often forced to lie in urine, feces, and blood. It's no surprise that sickness and diseases were common. One in five captives died en route. Some slaves chose death over such a horrid life. There are tales of slaves jumping overboard or starving themselves to death. Some slaves were killed by their captors when they tried to resist or escape. The dead were simply unchained from the living and thrown overboard.
* I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country ... I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything.
I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
* Olaudah Equiano, a West African, recounting his experience, at age 12, of the Middle Passage in about 1757
Those who chose to live and managed to survive the journey were sold into slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas. Many of the first slave ships that traveled to North American colonies landed in Virginia and Maryland, in port cities on the Chesapeake Bay. Later, southern port cities including Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana, became the favored places to sell slave cargo.
As arriving slave ships sailed into ports, news would spread of their arrival. Plantation owners and others seeking slaves soon made their way to the docks. Meanwhile, the slave ship's crew herded its human cargo out of the dark, smelly hold. Barefoot and half-naked, the Africans squinted in the sunlight and shivered in the cold. The captives were cleaned up and made to look as "high quality" as possible. The slave sellers tried to cover up gray hair, sores, and scars with paint. They forced their captives to sing, dance, and act happy and healthy in front of the customers. Slave buyers and plantation owners poked and prodded the human merchandise, checking their eyes and teeth as if they were livestock. Once the selling started, each African was sold to the highest bidder. Many slave buyers preferred to separate families and tribes. They figured that it'd be harder for slaves to escape if they knew no one and couldn't communicate with their loved ones. Wives and husbands were separated. Brothers and sisters gazed at each other for the final time in their lives. If a buyer wanted a woman slave, but not her children, the children were sold to someone else. Whomever bought the slaves called them whatever they wanted, never even asking for their African names.
* I was born at Edenton, [North Carolina,] on the sea shore, in 1804. It was an old shipping port, where a good deal of rice and cotton was taken away on ships and it was also a sort of slave market. Colored people were run over there from Africa and put into pens, and negro traders came there by the hundreds, bought the slaves and took them west and sold them to planters. When the traders and owners were making bargains they would feel you all over to see if your muscles were good, look at your teeth and ask what was your age. The buyer would ask what was your age and the seller would tell the year you was born. I was sold several times and that is the way I know I was born in 1804. I don't know the day or the month.
* Allen Sidney, former North Carolina slave
The slave ships transported 10 million Africans to the Americas. It was the largest forced migration of people in world history. The Atlantic slave trade spawned shipbuilding and other industries in Europe. It fueled European colonial conquest and rule, and set England on the path to becoming the British Empire. The buying and selling of human beings had become part of the world's economy.
Slavery and Africans in America
Africans have played a part in the history of the United States since its beginning. African sailors, pirates, workers, and slaves came to the New World in the earliest European exploratory missions. The first enslaved Africans began arriving in the New World in 1518. They were brought to Europe's newly born Caribbean colonies. There they were put to work growing sugarcane and other crops for export, mining, and constructing a colonial empire that would soon wipe out most of the native Caribbean peoples. The great majority of the Africans sold into the Atlantic slave trade over the next three centuries would end up in the Caribbean and Brazil. About two-thirds of the approximately 10 million Africans shipped to the New World became slaves in sugarcane colonies. About a half-million slaves were brought to what became the United States. The first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619.
The people of Jamestown, Virginia, noticed the newly arrived ship anchored at the mouth of the James River after the storm passed that day in 1619. But they took even more notice of what was aboard the anchored Dutch man-of-war. Twenty African captives were on the ship. The warship had pirated 100 Africans from the cargo of a Spanish frigate sailing the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty of the Africans had died at sea. The 20 survivors were the first Africans to arrive in what would someday become the United States. The Jamestown colonists traded the sailors food for the Africans, baptized them, and gave them Christian names. These first permanent North American residents from Africa — and other early African arrivals — weren't considered to be slaves. They were put to work as servants doing many of the same tasks as the English indentured-servant immigrants. The early Africans were likely free to go once they'd worked for 5 to 10 years, as was the case with English indentured servants. Some of those first Africans that arrived on the Dutch man-of-war probably became free blacks. Unfortunately, the African captives that soon followed wouldn't be so lucky. Within a few short decades, the Africans imported to the British North American colonies were declared slaves for life upon arrival.
Africans arrived in the North American colonies to find themselves isolated in a strange land. Often they were without any family members or even others of their own ethnic group who spoke their language. Sold like cattle into a life completely controlled by strangers, they were expected to work for their owners for the rest of their lives. And their children born in this harsh land would inherit those lives of misery and pass them on to their own children and their children's children. Slavery had come to America — and settled in for a long stay.
Liberty and Justice for All?
In 1776 the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, and the American Revolutionary War began. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But at the time, Jefferson himself controlled the "life and liberty" of more than 200 human beings — his slaves.
Just before the start of the American Revolution, nearly 400,000 slaves lived in the southern colonies, and 50,000 lived in the northern colonies. Why did the southern colonies have eight times as many slaves? Cash crops for export like tobacco, rice, and sugar grew well in the soil and climate of the southern colonies. Slave labor made large "plantations," or farming estates, profitable for southern planters. In some southern states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, the number of black slaves equaled that of white colonists. The weather and land of the northern colonies weren!'t suited for plantations, so fewer slaves were purchased to work in those colonies. In addition, a good number of the English settlers in New England and Pennsylvania didn't agree with slavery. Many religious settlers, such as the Quakers and the Puritans, had come to the colonies to build "utopias," or perfect societies. Slavery didn't fit in with their idea of a perfect society. (Continues...)
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