Lost In Disguise Activity

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.

Words on aged newsprint read: Ranaway, From the subscriber near Clinton Greene county Ala., my negro boy named Fagans, who is heavy built, about five feet eight or ten inches high, near thirty five years old, has heavy black beard,...
Runaway slave advertisement from Clinton Green County, Alabama.

Columbus Democrat (Columbus, MS), 18 August 1838

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.

Words on aged newsprint: 100 Dollars Reward! Ran away from the subscriber on the 27th of July, my Black woman named Emily, Seventeen years of age, well grown, black color, has a whining voice...
Broadside, 4 September 1853.

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.

Newspaper advertisement titled, Three Hundred Dollars Reward. Describes three runaway slaves named Harry, Ben, and Minty with $100 reward each for their return.
Runaway Advertisement for Harriet Tubman (then known as Minty Ross)  and her two brothers Harry and Ben that appeared in Cambridge Democrat (Dorchester, Maryland), 3 October 1849 when they fled from Poplar Neck in Caroline County where they were then employed.

Courtesy Bucktown Village Foundation, Cambridge, MD.

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.

Advertisement reads: Three Hundred Dollars Reward. Ranaway from the subscriber on Monday the 17th ult., three negros, named as follows: Harry, aged about 19 years, has on one side of neck a wen, just under the ear, he is of a dark chestnut color, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches hight; Ben, aged aged about 25 years, is very quick to speak when spoken to, he is of a chestnut color, about six feet high; Minty, aged about 27 years, is of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5 feet high. One hundred dollars reward will be given for each of the above named negros, if taken out of State, and $50 each if taken in the State. They must be lodged in Baltimore, Easton or Cambridge Jail, in Maryland. Eliza Ann Brodess, Near Bucktown, Dorchester county, Md. Oct. 3d, 1849. The Delaware Gazette will please copy the above three weeks, and charge this office.

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:
  • Name
  • Age
  • Physical description
  • Sex
  • Height

  • Skin color

  • Size

  • Hair

  • Distinctive/Unique marks or scars

  • Clothes (what they were wearing)

  • Personality traits and mannerisms

  • Special skill or talents

  • Items they took with them

  • Personal history

    • Former slave holders(s)

    • Other places that the lived

    • Other escape attempts

    • Family members

  • 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.

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    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!

    A blue circle with the words Junior Ranger Lost In Disguise National Underground Railroad Network To Freedom encircles a white field with a yellow star that has a black lined face within.

    Print your own Junior Ranger Lost In Disguise sticker. Click on the image of the badge in order to open the printable page.

    If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please contact us by emailing

    Last updated: October 16, 2020