“Escaping slaves took a trip on the underground railroad to reach freedom,” you explain to your preschooler. She doesn’t understand why slavery was allowed, but she understands that she wouldn’t want to be a slave. “I don’t want to be a slave. I’m escaping with you,” she agrees. “Let’s go.” You might not have all the answers to her questions about slavery, but underground railroad activities help her understand this sad time in history.
“Life as a slave was cruel,” you begin. “A master could sell a slave’s child and there was nothing the parents could do but cry and pray.” She doesn’t understand how someone could be so cruel, and she can’t imagine being torn out of your arms and taken away, never to see you again. Role-play different aspects of slave life such as having to do what you’re told, discipline if you failed, no privacy or rights. She'll understand why slaves ran away, hoping to be free in the north.
Many Negro spirituals expressed a longing for home, freedom and a better life. Listen to spirituals such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Swing Low,” “”Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Steal Away.” “These songs were like codes,” you explain. The slaves sang them in the fields while they worked. Only the slaves understood that the songs were about finding a way to be free.” He can learn to sing some of the songs. You might talk about how singing can make you feel better when you feel bad.
“Slaves who finally had enough often decided to run away. They knew if they were caught they would be punished or killed. They hated slavery more than punishment. Let’s pack a bag and run for Canada.” Help her gather a few possessions in a pillowcase, such as a few clothes, a blanket and a little food. Explain, “You will have to find food and help on the way.” Move through your home, hiding behind furniture, in closets, crawling under tables and disguising yourselves to hide from slave hunters.
“Most slaves didn’t read, so they looked for signs that people would help them on the underground railroad.” Make a paper quilt that slaves used to communicate information about the railroad and to identify way stations. You might use the quilt codes illustrated on websites such as the University of California at Berkley or Owen Sound’s Black History. As another option, he could make a hitching post lantern or a star chart to mark the path to freedom.