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Harriet Tubman: Recognizing the Human Agency

Harriet Tubman: Recognizing the Human Agency

By Tom Morton, 1998 Governor-General's Award Recipient


Grade 10 History, World Issues, Geography, The Arts

View Lesson Plan


Slavery, the Underground Railroad, the role of conflict and struggle in history, critical thinking, supporting and conflicting evidence, human agency.


Students will:

  • Describe the contributions of Harriet Tubman to the history of Canada;
  • Analyse and assess the methods used by Tubman to bring about changes in specific political and social conditions;
  • Describe the importance of human agency to the making of history.


Dependant on the nature of the supporting handouts


Critical Question: To what extent did Harriet Tubman change history? Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad by Tom Morton, provided at the end of this plan, will be useful for background information.

  • Criteria for Judgment: the use of relevant evidence to support general statements; consideration of the major factors influencing slavery as described in the text; fair consideration of contradictory evidence
  • Critical Thinking Vocabulary: supporting evidence; conflicting evidence; consensus
  • Thinking Strategies: highlighting text; making a diagram; taking turns
  • Habits of Mind: thoroughness; thoughtfulness; fair-mindedness

1. The teacher introduces the question of agency to the class. Ask students to consider these questions: To what extent are we responsible for what happens in our lives and to what extent are we influenced by things outside of our control? For example, who was responsible for the mark that you received on your last report card: was it all your responsibility or did your parents have a role? Your teachers? Your classmates? The school system?

Make a transition to the topic of human agency and history and introduce the idea of supporting and conflicting evidence:

The same kind of question about who or what makes a difference is important for history. Many argue that humans make history just as you can say that you are responsible for your marks. There have certainly been agents of great change, individuals who have changed the course of events. For example, Joan of Arc pushed the English from her country of France and Mohatma Gandhi did the same in India. Examples like these would be supporting evidence for the opinion that individuals make an important difference.

Yet even these great people did not control events alone. They needed the support of many other people. Conversely, mainstream, social forces like religion, wars, and the economy influenced the history of France and India. Gandhi was the leader of the independence movement but he could not stop the division of his country or the war that followed. Gandhi was just one of the many forces to influence the history of India.

To what extent do we change events or are we controlled by outside forces? Invite the students to consider this question of human agency in history with the case of Harriet Tubman: “To what extent did she change the lives of slaves? Was she the key person that led the slaves to Canada? Did she abolish slavery? Or were there other people and large social forces like religion involved?”

2. The teacher distributes a copy of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad to each student and the class reads aloud while marking important points on the text. Ask students to indicate in the margins with the letters ‘HT’ places where it seems that Tubman has influenced events, with a ‘C’ where it describes groups working for change, or ‘SF’ where larger, mainstream, social forces seem to be the most important.

3. Student teams evaluate Tubman using a Roundtable: Organize students into heterogeneous groups of about four. These may be the research teams or different groups. Distribute to each one the handout “Who Makes History?” Students could also draw the triangle of the handout on a large poster paper and work with the larger sheet. Explain the task described in the instructions that asks students to take turns placing an event and giving a reason.

4. Students report and discuss as a whole class: After the completion of the assignment, the teacher should call on students randomly to report on their decisions and reasons. For a shorter discussion, the teacher could just ask for a report on one or two actions, for example, the abolition of slavery or the role of religion in Tubman’s life.

Draw to the students’ attention that the evidence may be conflicting. For example, Tubman did much to help slaves but they did much by themselves and much with the help of a whole network of people. In addition, Tubman was certainly inspired, even guided by her religious beliefs. A good answer to the question should consider all sides of the evidence if it conflicts.

5. The teacher extends the idea of agency to previous learning about slavery: Explain how slave resistance would also be considered as agency. Ask the class to suggest actions that might be considered as resistance or agency, e.g., singing spirituals or learning to read and write.

6. Teacher presents critical challenge: “To what extent did Harriet Tubman change history?"

The answer should take the form of a two page double-spaced speech that they might give to a younger grade and keep the following in mind for evaluation purposes:

  • clear and lively writing
  • sufficient background information to show understanding of slavery, the Underground Railroad, and Tubman
  • a thesis that answers the question
  • thoughtful use of examples from the reading that support the thesis
  • fair and thoughtful use of evidence that conflicts with the thesis
  • a thorough consideration of the most important information presented in the text

About the Educator

Tom Morton’s goal is to create a community of thoughtful, knowledgeable and cooperative learners “who see themselves as agents of positive change.” He teaches grades 9 - 11 and several of his classes are comprised of new Canadians who may love the country but know nothing of its past. He is faced with trying to create a learning community out of students who are remarkable in their ethnic diversity and disparate in their academic abilities. Rising to the challenge, Tom has created nationally recognized curriculum that inspires critical thought, social action and collaboration among students. Titles include: Look Again: The process of prejudice and discrimination, Nobody Likes an Alarm Clock, Hard Times: Then and Now, and most recently, Get on Board: The Underground Railroad to Canada.

Tom was one of the founders of the British Columbia Co-operative Learning Association. He works closely with teachers, student teachers and university faculty to teach methods courses, critique works-in-progress, share ideas, and engage in cutting-edge curriculum development. He has presented workshops on teaching history and social studies across the country. Publications and professional development aside, Tom believes his greatest teaching rewards are found in the achievement of his students.


Who Makes History?

Instructions: To what extent did Harriet Tubman make history? Were the events of the time influenced by her, by groups of people working collectively like the Underground Railroad, or by social forces?

Create a triangle and label one point The Individual, the second point Cooperative groups and the third point Mainstream Social Forces.

Study the events listed here. Were they the results of Tubman’s work as an individual, the effort of groups, or social forces? Each team member in turn should choose an event, say where it should go in the triangle and give a reason. For example, if you thought that Tubman’s Escape was a combination of her own efforts and the help of the Underground Railroad, you would place the number 2 between those two points on the triangle. Events:

1. The sale of Tubman’s sisters to the South

2. Tubman’s escape

3. The escape of slaves to Canada

4. The escape of the group of slaves led by Tubman when she followed God’s directions

5. The abolition of slavery in Canada

6. The Union victory at Combahee River

7. The victory of the North in the US civil war


Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad by Tom Morton

Harriet Tubman earned the name “Black Moses” because like the Moses in the Bible who led Jews out of slavery in Egypt, she lead many of her fellow Blacks out of slavery in the southern United States to freedom in Canada.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in 1820. Her ancestors had been captured in Africa and sold as slaves in America. Unlike slaves in earlier times, the Africans were regarded as less than human. They were chattel or property in the same sense as farm animals and were often treated the same: fed scraps, housed in shacks, and worked under the whip.

In 1793, the demand for slave labour had increased with the invention of the cotton gin, a machine that made it easier to produce cotton. The price for cotton fell so demand for it rose. Demand for slave labour to pick it also rose. The number of slaves tripled from half a million in 1775 to 1.5 million in 1820.

Most of this cotton was grown in the warm climate of the American South. It was there in the 1800s that slavery became an even greater part of the economy than ever before. When Harriet Tubman was a child, her two sisters were taken away and sold to the owner of a cotton plantation in one of the Southern states.

In 1849 Harriet Tubman decided to escape this fate by riding the “Underground Railroad” north to freedom. This escape route was not literally underground nor was it a railroad. It was underground in the sense that it was a secret operation run by courageous people, both Black and White, who were opposed to slavery. It was a railroad in the sense that it used railroad code words like “passengers” for the fugitives and “stations” for the safe houses where the fugitives hid from slave owners who hunted them. “Conductors” were those who led the slaves from one station to another like the Canadian doctor Alexander Milton Ross. He used his bird-watching hobby as a cover while visiting the plantations to tell slaves how best to travel to Canada. From 1793 until 1861, thousands of Blacks or African-Americans made it to freedom in the northern American free states and to Canada through this underground network.

Before the 19th century, Canada too had slaves, but not many. Its economy did not need them, unlike the American South. In addition, more and more Canadians were campaigning to abolish slavery. The first legal step towards its abolition was in 1793 when Upper Canada passed a law to ban the importation of slaves. In 1803 Lower Canada set free its 300 slaves but it too did not exactly abolish slavery. But in 1834, after extensive campaigning by antislavery societies in Britain, the British government passed the Abolition Act and ended slavery throughout the British Empire. Despite this, there was always some risk that after a slave escaped to Canada, slave hunters might kidnap their “property” and smuggle the runaway back to his or her American “owner.”

When Harriet Tubman escaped on the Underground Railroad, she travelled by night for a week before reaching the northern state of Pennsylvania, and freedom. A year later she became a conductor herself and made 19 trips before 1850, risking capture and losing that freedom. She would use the North Star to guide her on clear nights; on cloudy nights she would feel for the moss growing on the north side of trees. Sometimes she and the runaway slaves would hide in a station—in their chimneys, barns, haystacks and root cellars. They also used disguises when travelling in the South and fake passes in the Northern states.

To protect her passengers, the Black Moses could be ruthless. She thought that if a slave gave up the journey, he should be shot. An interviewer asked if she would really do that. “Yes,” she replied, “if he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all, and all who helped us; and do you think I’d let so many die just for one coward man?”

“Did you ever have to shoot anyone?” the interviewer asked. “One time,” she said, “a man gave out the second night; his feet were sore and swollen, he couldn’t go any further; he’d rather go back and die, if he must.” They tried everything to help and encourage him, but nothing worked. “Then,” she said, “I told the boys to get their guns ready and shoot him. They’d have done it in a minute, but when he heard that he jumped right up and went on as well as anybody.”

It was the voice of God who told Harriet Tubman to escape slavery and God who prompted her to return to free others. He spoke with her often. According to the station master Thomas Garrett, Tubman was once leading a band of slaves, all men, when she said that God had told her to stop. She did and asked Him what she should do. He told her to leave the road and turn to the left. She obeyed. Soon they came to a stream. She asked again of God what to do and He said to cross it. It was a cold March night, but Tubman waded across the water up to her chin with her fugitives reluctantly following. Eventually after crossing still another stream they found a cabin belonging to a Black family who took all of them in and cared for them. Garrett said he had never met anyone who had such confidence in the voice of God.

In 1850, the United States passed a new law, the Fugitive Slaves Act, which let slave owners capture their escaped slaves anywhere in the United States including the northern free states and return them to the South. Those who were not escaped slaves but helped a fugitive to hide could be fined $1,000 or sent to jail for six months. The runaway slave who was returned to his or her master could have an ear chopped off, part of a foot removed, or be severely whipped. But the longing to be free was strong and the best hope for freedom was Canada. As many as three thousand Blacks crossed the border in the first few months after the Fugitive Slaves Act was passed.

Despite the greater risks, Tubman continued to help others escape. She made 11 more trips south, leading some 300 people into Canada, including her elderly parents and three brothers. At one point, slave owners offered $40,000 for her capture, dead or alive.

The final stops on the Underground Railroad were small towns across the border like St. Catharines, Ontario, where Tubman and some of her family lived for many years before the American Civil War started in 1861. The winters were hard for many of the refugees who arrived with no possessions, and poor clothing. They also found that, though they were free in Canada, they were not always equal. There was prejudice against them. However, there were also many Canadians willing to help and there was Harriet who would work for them, encourage them, and carry them through.

During the Civil War, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared slavery abolished. The Union Army of the North soon profited from hundreds of thousands of Blacks who fought as soldiers or laboured however they could.

Harriet Tubman had left Canada and joined the Union Army to serve as a nurse, scout and spy. By 1863 she had organized her own band of spies chosen from former slaves who knew the countryside and could guide the Union forces. In a raid at the Combahee River in South Carolina, these spies told the Union soldiers how to avoid mine traps set in the river. Led by Tubman, former slaves also piloted gunboats down the river and burned crops and buildings. They freed more than 750 slaves. Harriet Tubman was given credit for planning the raid, becoming the first and only woman in American history to lead a military attack.

The North won the war in 1865 and Tubman stayed to live in the United States as a free woman. However, many other Blacks stayed in Canada to contribute to their new homeland. Tubman retired in New York State and founded a home for the aged. She died in 1913.


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