Lesson Plan – William Still & The Underground Railroad

The following resources were developed for a performance of Sanctuary Road, a modern opera based on the writings of William Still that was staged by the Penn Square Music Festival in collaboration with LancasterHistory. These materials are adapted here for teaching William Still’s text on its own. (The original lesson plan can be downloaded here: Sanctuary Road Lesson Plan, PDF, 102kb)

In preparation for the opera, we teamed up with actor, director, and educator Lenwood Sloan for a theatrical reading of a letter written to William Still by William Whipper, a successful African American businessman and conductor on the Underground Railroad based in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Still’s book may be difficult for younger grades, but the short video is an excellent introduction to Still and the local history of the Underground Railroad right here in Lancaster County. 

Below you will find a guide for educators with answers to frequently asked questions about the Underground Railroad, links to resources on the Underground Railroad and William Still, and suggestions for activities and assignments related to Still’s book.  

About the Underground Railroad

The following text was drawn from a lesson plan produced by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Additional context specific to Lancaster County was added by historian Randy Harris of LancasterHistory.

What was the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a network of individuals, homes, and hideouts that helped enslaved people in the United States escape to freedom. In many places, it was not a physical railroad. Rather, the term described a network of people helping others escape slavery. 

“Underground” captured the secrecy of the movement and “railroad” referred to transporting people to freedom. The Underground Railroad often used railroad terms. Those who guided 

enslaved people were called conductors. Hideouts and homes where the enslaved hid along the route were called stations. The naming of the civil rights movement that became known as The Underground Railroad first appeared in print in abolitionist newspapers during the late 1830s or early 1840s. However, it is likely the term was part of common speech in the years shortly before it appeared in print.

How did the Underground Railroad operate in Southeastern Pennsylvania?

The understanding of the underground railroad as metaphor may hold true in states such as Ohio, New York, and the New England region where anti-slavery activities were intense and apparent, but where real railroads were established much later. However, Pennsylvania and especially the Southeastern region of the Commonwealth possess a unique heritage in this chapter of American History. Recently uncovered evidence shows that, at least in this area, the actual railroad was sometimes used as a transport system for the formerly enslaved, and that underground places and spaces were routinely used to hide those in their quest for freedom. (For examples of these unique transportation and concealment methods, see research uncovered by Randy Harris at http://undergroundrroriginspa.org/.)

While the movement’s roots grew from spontaneous anti-slavery actions in many places in the United States going back to the wake of the American Revolution, historians generally agree that the City of Philadelphia and the farming-dominated counties to the west along the Mason-Dixon Line were sites of early and especially active resistance to slavery in America.  

What was it like to travel on the Underground Railroad?

Traveling on the Underground Railroad was difficult and dangerous. Passengers would often travel by foot at night. They would sneak from one station to the next, being careful to not get caught by patrollers. Stations or depots were usually around 20 miles apart. Sometimes they would have to wait at a station for some time until they knew it was safe to travel again.


  • Abolitionist: a person who speaks out against slavery
  • Conductor: a person who helped enslaved persons along their route to freedom
  • Passenger: a person escaping slavery
  • Patroller: a person who captured escaping enslaved persons and returned them to their owners
  • Slave Trader: a person who purchased and sold enslaved persons
  • Stations: a safe house where escaping enslaved persons could rest
  • Enslaved Person: We say that the millions of people of African descent brought into North America and the United States were “enslaved” as opposed to being “slaves.” Use of this term draws attention to the person’s forced condition rather than labeling them with the permanent brand of a condition he or she did not choose.
  • Freedom Seeker: We call them “freedom seekers” as opposed to fugitives, runways, or contraband. People who took their own initiative to leave enslavement on their own or with help from others were indeed violating the laws of the period. However, this term recognizes that these people were acting in self-preservation and in opposition to a system that was contrary to the spirit of a nation where all men were said to be created equal. 

Additional Resources

Digital Resources on Slavery, Abolition, and the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County


About William Still 

Who was William Still?

William Still was born free in New Jersey in 1821. He was the youngest son of parents who escaped from slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, he organized an abolitionist network that aided hundreds of freedom seekers who passed through Pennsylvania. At great risk, he maintained records of their lives and published their first-person accounts in 1872 as the book The Underground Railroad.

Additional Resources

Digital Resources on William Still

Lectures and Documentaries

Lesson Planning Ideas

Introducing William Still and William Whipper

Introduce students to William Still and the history of the Underground Railroad, especially as it existed in Lancaster County. 

Key readings include:

    • “Henry Box Brown” (p. 81-86)
    • “The Slave Hunting Tragedy in Lancaster County, In September, 1851” (p.348-368)
      • Also known as the Christiana Riot or the Christiana Resistance. 
    • “William and Ellen Craft” (p. 368-377)
    • “Daniel Gibbons” (p. 642-649) 
      • Daniel Gibbons lived in Bird-in-Hand, PA.  
    • “William Whipper” (p.735-740)
      • William Whipper was based in Columbia, PA.

Storytelling and William Still’s The Underground Railroad

This is an open-ended lesson that has no right or wrong answers connected to it.  It is meant to make your students think about their own family stories as well as the stories of William Still. If time is limited, consider steps 1-3 below as a stand alone exercise. 

Before the lesson begins, have this statement front and center on the black board or other visual board: “Preserve every story, every fact, every event.” (This is a line from Sanctuary Road which is an opera adaptation of Still’s book.)

  1. Ask students to summarize the readings they’ve done from William Still’s The Underground Railroad. 
    • For younger grades who are not reading the primary text: After playing the video recording of William Whipper’s letter to William Still, ask students to summarize the letter.
  2. Tell your students a story related to your family or ask your students if they know a family story that has been handed down to them. Emphasize that stories are meant to be remembered and shared. Listen as they share their stories.
  3. Think about the stories you’ve told or have heard. Why are they so important to remember? Take time to listen to their responses.
    • Why would William Still want his stories to be remembered?
    • Mr. Still’s stories were filled with pain as well as surprising humor.  Remember Henry “Box” Brown. Some of our stories can be painful as well as happy.
  4. Assignment: Tell students to ask their families for a story that they would like you to remember.  Take time to write it down and bring it to class. In class, students will gather in small groups to share their stories. In groups:
    • Tell your group what this story says about their family.   
    • Why is it important to remember and share?  
    • What happens if we forget or fail to hand on these stories?
  5. Have your students come together to take one more look at the statement on the board.  “Preserve every story, every fact, every event.” What does it mean to you now?

Creative Activities

  • Imagine the experience of a freedom seeker escaping on the underground railroad. What do you think it was like to escape from slavery? What obstacles would freedom seekers face on their journeys? Would they have been scared? Happy? What would have kept them going when things were difficult?
  • Imagine the experience of a conductor on the underground railroad or members of a family in a station house along the underground railroad. What obstacles would they face in assuring the safety of freedom seekers? Would they have been scared? Happy? What would have kept them going when things were difficult? 


  • Write a letter from a freedom seeker to a conductor or from a conductor to a freedom seeker once the seeker has found freedom.

Draw or Paint

  • Create a comic strip or a small mural to illustrate an escape to freedom and the possible obstacles along the way. How could you draw the freedom seekers and the conductors on the underground railroad to show how they felt (scared, determined, happy) at different times during their journey? 

Look at Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold or Harriet and the Promised Land  by Jacob Lawrence for inspiration. (These are both books illustrated by world famous artists. The prose is written for children, but the artwork can inspire all ages. Using the links above, users with an account can access both books at the Internet Archive. Creating an account is free.)

Lesson inspired by “Using Art to Tell a Story” plan featured on A House Divided website.

Have questions about the above lesson plan and ideas? Contact Dr. Mabel Rosenheck, Director of Education & Exhibition Planning, at mabel.rosenheck@lancasterhistory.org. Subscribe to our complimentary Educator mailing list for updates about content and events for educators at LancasterHistory!