Fugitive Slaves: The Cost of Caring

Home Education Unit Plans The Vigilant Committee and the Underground Railroad Fugitive Slaves: The Cost of Caring

Fugitive Slaves: The Cost of Caring

In 1852, during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, a new Vigilance Committee was created with Robert Purvis as the head of the General Committee and William Still as the chairman. William Still documented the cases that the Vigilance Committee handled from 1852-1857. Through the analysis of Still’s journal, students will explore the personal accounts of fugitive slaves and will build a profile of those individuals who either came through Philadelphia or stayed in the city and sought the services of the Vigilance Committee. Still's compelling documentation of the names, ages, physical descriptions, treatment, motivations for seeking freedom, skills, and the details of the physical and emotional journeys of fugitive slaves provide rich content for discussion about slavery and escape. The Vigilance Committee expenditures as well as the Still journal reveal another aspect of the Underground Railroad, the financial cost of caring. This lesson is designed to have students understand the Underground Railroad as an intricate system powered, on the one hand, by personal motivation and determination for freedom, but also supported and aided by individuals in the larger, particularly free black, communities.

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to Pennsylvania society?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will be able to:

  • Assess the impact slave laws in Pennsylvania in the antebellum period and assess their implications on the free black, slave, and the general populations of Philadelphia by discussing the risks both Fugitive Slaves and the Vigilance Committee took for freedom.
  • Distinguish the characteristics of a fugitive slave traveling through Pennsylvania by analyzing the primary source journals of William Still, Chairman of the Vigilance Committee.
  • Interpret how much it cost the Vigilance Committee to assist fugitive slaves by analyzing William Still’s expense book.

Other Materials

Relevant excerpts from William Still journal 

Expense Book, Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, 1854-1855

Student Worksheet: Cost of Caring

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. Drawing on information from the background reading, teachers should lead a discussion accompanied by a presentation discussing the northern racism and violence that demoralized Robert Purvis and quelled the Vigilant Committee.

a.  The focus of the discussion should be on the riots of 1842.

b. During the presentation, the teacher should introduce William Still, the chairman of the Vigilance Committee from 1852-1857.

c. After being introduced to William Still, have students predict what might have influenced the revival of the organization in the 1850s

d.  Responses might include increased sectional debate and conflict, the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the radicalization of the abolition movement.

2. Have students read through the journal excerpts and the Vigilance Committee expenditures. Teachers may decide not to use all of the journal entries provided. As students read the material, they should complete the worksheet.

a. After students have completed the readings and worksheet, students will be organized in small groups (3-4). These groups will be tasked with the job of developing a general composite of the fugitive slave. The groups will work together as the teacher circulates the room helping any group that might be stuck. Some ideas for students who are struggling: male or female, traveled in groups or alone, modes of transportation, reason for leaving, etc.

3. After the students are finished, the teacher will lead a focused discussion around questions number 8 and 9 from the student worksheet.

a.The teacher should discuss how Still's entries compare to the Vigilant Committee's documentation (Have the students think back to the previous lesson in the unit.)

b. As a class, student should discuss the risks in maintaining a detailed journal as well as highlight William Still’s reunification with his brother and the importance of documenting this information to reunite other families. In an extended response to be put in their journals, have students reflect upon what if any information about the UGRR was surprising, interesting, etc. The students should also incorporate the “cost of caring” and the intricate system of communication, transportation and aid that was the Underground Railroad. Responses should contain complete thoughts and should range from 2-3 handwritten pages.

Expansion Activities:

  1.  In addition to answering the questions on the worksheet, teachers may choose to also have students map where these fugitive slaves came from. Provide an outline map of the eastern United States, an atlas and the journal excerpts. Have students locate the counties and states these individuals came from. Select a color to represent a particular location and plot a dot for each individual who came from that location. This activity will allow students to visually construct patterns of escape and assess whether more runaways were from urban or rural settings, assess the distance of their locations from the city of Philadelphia, and hypothesize why certain patterns emerge.
  2. Ask students to write a one page response to the following questions: If you were a fugitive slave, would you seek out the services of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society or the Vigilance Committee? Why? Provide the specific strengths of the organization you selected and the weaknesses of the organization you didn’t select. As an alternative, the teacher might select specific cases from the background readings, William Still’s journal, and the Vigilance Committee sources and have students respond to the above questions based on their particular situation. Ex: A free black who has been living and working in Philadelphia for the last six years and is in danger of being kidnapped and sent back south may choose the support of the PAS as opposed to a newly arrived fugitive. Student should be assigned this task for homework to allow them to have enough time to develop their thoughts.


Abolition: A movement calling for the prohibition of slavery

Antebellum: Refers to the period of time leading up to the Civil War

Compromise: A settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions

Conductor: A person who aided runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad

Fugitive Slave: A slave who flees his or her master

Immoral: Violating the principles of right and wrong

Kidnapping: In the context of this lesson, stealing someone for the purpose of enslavement

Mulatto: A person of mixed race

Narrative: A personal story or account

Passing: In the context of this unit, to be accepted as or believed to be white

Resistance: The action of opposing something you disapprove of

Underground Railroad: A network or system of transportation, communication and support that secretly operated to help slaves escape from the southern slave-holding states to the free states of the North or to Canada

Vigilant: Carefully observant or attentive

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