The Color of Freedom

We developed a unit based on common children’s  books on the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement.
Grade Level

For each book we created a vocabulary list, active learning options and higher order thinking questions. This helped us develop our unit on these topics to make the content more substantive and the history more engaging.

There are plenty of books in your school library that will work with this approach. As an example, we chose Margot Theis Raven’s Night Boat to Freedom ($6.99 at www.macmillan.com) to make the Underground Railroad come alive. The book tells the story of 12-year-old Christmas John and his Granny Judith. Granny was enslaved when strangers lured her to their ship with a piece of red flannel. Now on a Kentucky plantation, the two aid other slaves in escaping across the river to the free state of Ohio. John rows the slaves to freedom and, because of his young age, he avoids notice. Each day as Granny makes a quilt, John asks, “What color is freedom tonight?”

Pull out key vocabulary words and concepts, but also pay attention to author’s language and use of figures of speech. Here are some examples from Night Boat to Freedom: dye pots, hanks of thread, indigo, pine straw, bay leaves, “feeble as a baby” (simile), rawhide, “peaceful as a baby’s cradle” (simile).

We find it best to personally respond to the text ourselves as a way that develops higher order thinking questions that will engage students. Here are the ones we developed for Night Boat to Freedom:

  • How did the color red steal Granny Judith away from Africa?
  • What color do you imagine freedom to be? Why do you choose that color as the freedom color?
  • What images does the author use to describe how quietly Granny and John talked by the fireplace?
  • Why did the people escaping need to use passwords and codes?
  • What character traits does John possess?
  • What older person do you know who would send you off to freedom?

Strategically using children’s literature is a way to bring history alive. And the great news is that your own school library is full of amazing books!

Judy Roberts
Hanover College

Anne Haskins
Southwestern Elementary School
Hanover, Indiana

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