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Defining Moments

The Underground Railroad

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Defining Moments: The Underground Railroad provides a detailed account and authoritative overview of the Underground Railroad, the loosely organized network of safe houses and secret routes used by thousands of enslaved African Americans in the 1800s to escape to free states. It chronicles the origins and development of slavery in the United States and the corresponding growth of the abolition movement. It offers an in-depth look at the operation of the Underground Railroad and the ways in which this effort to undermine and destroy the institution of slavery fueled the sectional strife that culminated in the Civil War. The volume concludes by tracing African-Americans’ efforts to achieve civil rights and social justice since the end of slavery, and exploring the ongoing problem of modern-day slavery and human trafficking around the world. The volume is organized into three distinct sections—Narrative Overview, Biographies, and Primary Sources—which offer a one-stop resource for student research.

  • The Narrative Overview section provides a detailed, factual account of the events that led to the development of the Underground Railroad, the issues that arose during its operation, and its legacy in American society
  • The Biographies section presents valuable biographical background on leading figures associated with the Underground Railroad
  • The Primary Sources section collects a wide variety of pertinent primary source materials from the era, including official documents, first-hand accounts, memoirs, editorials, and other important works

Other notable features include a glossary of important people, places, and terms; a detailed chronology featuring page references to relevant sections of the narrative; an annotated listing of selected sources for further study; an extensive general bibliography; and a subject index.

Standard Features

  • Library binding, 7 1/4 x 9 1/4
  • 240 pages
  • 30-40 photographs and other illustrations
  • Narrative Overview section: Provides a detailed, factual account of the “defining moment”
  • Biographies section: Presents valuable biographical background on leading figures associated with the event
  • Primary Sources section: Collects a wide variety of pertinent primary source materials from the era
  • Research Topics: Proposes a list of topics suitable for conducting historical research and writing reports, a valuable starting point for student research
  • Source Attribution: Contains references for primary sources and other quoted material that guide users to other historical research resources
  • Glossary of Important People, Places, and Terms: Gives brief definitions for the many terms used in the book
  • Chronology: Highlights the related events in chronological order, along with “see” references that direct the reader to pages in the narrative with additional information
  • Sources for Further Study: Provides annotated citations for selected sources that are most useful to students
  • Bibliography: Lists books, periodicals, web sites, and videos consulted in preparing the volume
  • Subject Index: Includes people, places, organizations, events, and other topics

Research Topics

Each volume in the Defining Moments series covers a wide range of topics that students can use as starting points for further research.Potential research topics for Defining Moments: The Underground Railroad are below:

  • Some framers of the U.S. Constitution believed that they did not need to address the issue of slavery because the institution would gradually die out on its own. Although slavery did fade away in the North, it not only continued to exist in the South but expanded rapidly in the early 1800s. Compare the two regions in terms of history, culture, population, climate, and economy. What differences account for their opposing views of slavery?
  • Examine the impact of the slave system on white Southerners who did not own slaves. Why might someone support slavery even if they did not own slaves? How were people who did not support slavery treated in the South?
  • Describe the forms of resistance to slavery used by enslaved people, free people of color, white abolitionists, and Underground Railroad workers. What was each group trying to accomplish? Which forms of resistance were the most effective?
  • Read the primary-source document in which Southern writer George Fitzhugh offers a defense of slavery, and make a list of Fitzhugh’s main points. Now read the anti-slavery speeches and letters written by Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb. How do these abolitionists refute Fitzhugh’s arguments?
  • Who were the main groups of people involved in the abolitionist movement, and what were their main goals and strategies? In what ways did they agree or disagree? Why might someone be opposed to the spread of slavery, but not opposed to slavery itself?
  • The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was so unpopular in the North that many people ignored or defied it. Are citizens ever justified in breaking the law? Are authorities ever justified in refusing to enforce the law? Discuss other times and circumstances in history when this has occurred.
  • Imagine you are enslaved on a Kentucky plantation in the 1850s. Write a journal entry describing your decision to run away and your journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Be sure to include information about your age and skills, your mode of travel, how you obtain supplies and directions, the people you encounter along the way, the challenges or risks you must face, and the types of support and assistance you receive.
  • Imagine you are an Underground Railroad conductor or stationmaster living in Ohio in the 1850s. Write a journal entry describing the actions you take to help a family of runaways reach safety. Be sure to include information about your age and skills, the methods you use, and the challenges or risks you must face.
  • Discuss the legacy of the Underground Railroad and explore the relevance this episode in U.S. history holds for Americans today.
  • Research the Underground Railroad activities that took place in the area where you live, or visit a historic site if there is one nearby. Write a paper describing some of the notable local people, places, and events from that era.
  • Gather information and statistics about how human trafficking and modern-day slavery affect people in the area where you live. Prepare a presentation, report, or article for the school newspaper aimed at raising awareness of the problem and encouraging people to take action to combat it.


“Presents a detailed, illustrated overview of the Underground Railroad … An ideal reference for student report research topics and non-specialist general readers with an interest in the 19th Century American history, ‘The Underground Railroad’ is very highly recommended for personal, community, school, and university library collections and supplemental reading lists.”

—Library Bookwatch, Sep ‘15