One fifth-grader said he could feel the tension of the terrible risk mingle with the bright hope of freedom.
With Black History Month as backdrop, fifth-graders at Harker Heights Elementary School drew symbols of quilts and researched the geography and economics that drove slavery in the American south.
Through a web tool, the students examined maps differentiating the north and south and explored the differences that made one region largely industrial and the other primarily agrarian.
The study also called on students to consider everyday life as a slave and to ponder the possibility of escape through the network of human helpers called conductors and the songs and quilts that contained coded directions.
Teachers Mary Koss and Sara Mossman said they were impressed at the level of learning that opened students’ minds to the complexities of those turbulent times.
“We wanted them to know the history of the quilting that was used in the free states,” Koss said. It wasn’t until escaped slaves made it out of the south that they benefited from the Underground Railroad, she pointed out.
Students researched the myriad of quilt patch designs and their meanings.
Messages encoded in the fabric included symbols that directed slaves to follow the migration of geese, to take a crisscrossing path, to follow a bear’s path or to follow the North Star, to name some examples.
The Scholastic website led students to consider their nation in 1860 when 4 million slaves resided in the American southern states, according to information on the education site.
Students worked together, filling in questions and discussing life as a slave and the potential risks and rewards of escaping to free states.
“They can see that it’s not just a matter of the good and the bad,” Mossman said. “There are economic differences. Not everyone in the north helped and not everyone in the south wanted slaves.”
Fifth-grader Yadira Armas said the study was an important one to understand the obstacles African-American slaves faced on a regular basis. “Sometimes they ran at night and hid in the day,” she said. “They used quilts to get signals where to go and where to find food.”
“It’s a really good (study),” said fifth-grader Israel Melena. “It would not feel good to be a slave and know you could get a beating.”
He wrote an account as if he were a slave fleeing the south, using quilts and songs to find his way and to avoid obstacles like fast-moving rivers.
“It feels like you’re actually there,” Melena said. “I thought the Underground Railroad was trains and that it was easy to escape, but you could get beat for trying.”
Armas praised the bravery of “conductors” who risked their lives to help slaves to freedom and pointed out that some of the escaped slaves died in their efforts.
“I think this is an important part of history,” she said. “It reminds us we shouldn’t take everything for granted now that we’re free. They worked hard for freedom.”