This activity illustrates the creativity and skill that was necessary to escape from slavery. The ingenuity that freedom seekers demonstrated served as powerful counter narrative to ideas that enslavement was the natural state for people of African descent and that they were content to be held as property. Their resourcefulness also challenged notions of racism and sexism undermining notions that these groups lacked intelligence. This activity is not meant to be a slavery simulation.
The Underground Railroad
Not found underground nor on a railroad. The Underground Railroad was a movement. People who were enslaved ran away in order to be free. They were sometimes helped by others. Those who ran away are called freedom seekers.
Escaping from slavery on the Underground Railroad involved a lot of skill and creativity, including the use of disguises.
Why Disguise Was Necessary?
Slave holders printed advertisements for runaway slaves in newspapers. Read some of the detailed descriptions of what Freedom Seekers looked like.
In order to avoid being caught and returned to slavery, freedom seekers used disguises to change the way that they looked. For example, “Ben” escaped from slavery dressed in women’s clothes. This allowed him to leave his hiding place and go out in public.
Catching Freedom Seekers
Enslaved people were considered property. They were owned, which allowed them to be bought and sold. Because they were worth money, they were considered valuable, and slaveholders often attempted to get escaped slaves back. To do this slaveholders used runaway slave ads. These ads were published in newspapers or posted in public spaces, offering rewards for the capture of freedom seekers.
In 1849, when Harriet Tubman (then known as Minty Ross) escaped from Poplar Neck County, Maryland with her two brothers, Harry and Ben, a runaway ad was placed in an area newspaper. The three hid for three weeks but decided not to continue their journey and returned. Harriet, would try again, making her way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Despite rewards being offered, she was never captured, even when she came back to the area to help others escape.
Identifying Runaway Slaves
- So people could identify freedom seekers, runaway slave ads contained as much detail about them as possible. Ads could include the following information:
- Physical description
Distinctive/Unique marks or scars
Clothes (what they were wearing)
Personality traits and mannerisms
Special skill or talents
Items they took with them
Former slave holders(s)
Other places that the lived
Other escape attempts
Details of escape
Place they escaped from
Means of escape
Who they escaped with
- Items they took with them
- Possible destinations, or places that they might go
- Amount of reward
- Information about slaveholder
These ads not only give us important information about the individuals who ran away from slavery, they also help us learn about what life was like for those who were enslaved.
How did freedom seekers hide in plain sight?
Read these freedom seekers' stories.
Create Your Own Disguise!
Look in a mirror. Describe yourself? Hair color, hair style, eye color, height, marks, scars, what you are wearing, etc. What is your favorite or most noticeable physical feature? Also, think about other things that describe you. Do you have any special skills or talents? If you can, write a description of yourself on a piece of paper to record this information and/or take a picture of yourself.
How Would You Disguise Yourself?
Now it’s time to for a little dress up. Change how you look using available items from around your house. You can use things like clothes, hats, wigs, glasses, shoes, fabric, scarves, paper, pillows, old Halloween costumes, etc. Be creative, but be careful not to do or use anything for your disguise without first getting permission from an adult.
Once you are finished creating your disguise take a picture to share and save.
How well do you think your disguise works? Do you recognize yourself? If you want, test it out. See if your family members and friends can tell it’s you.
Congratulations you have earned your virtual Jr. Ranger UGRR badge!
Print your own Junior Ranger Lost In Disguise sticker. Click on the image of the badge in order to open the printable page.