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Underground Railroad Music: Spirituals

Grade 4

What is a Spiritual?

A spiritual is a specific type of music that was created by African American slaves in the United States. It is the foundation for later musical forms such as gospel, blues and jazz.. Many of the composers are unknown.  

What is the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was not a railroad with tracks and train cars. It was not a real train and it was not underground.  The word "underground" is used to explain something that is secret and that only a few special people know about.

The Underground Railroad was a method used to help slaves escape to freedom. It was a network of people and places working together to smuggle slaves out of the South and into the free states.

A "conductor" was a person who would help guide the slaves to safe hiding places. That is why it is called a railroad. There were "stops" along the way for slaves to stay and hide until it was safe to move on to the next "stop" on the road to freedom. It was dangerous for the slaves to try to escape and it was also dangerous for the people who were helping them.

Harriet Tubman is one of many conductors on the Underground Railroad. 


Escape Routes

Click on the map to see the routes that slaves used to escape and to see which states were free states and slave states.

The Underground Railroad

Click on the image to begin the journey on the Underground Railroad.

What Would You Do?

Click on the image to follow the route on the Underground Railroad. Along the way, you will need to decide what to do and who to trust.

Fisk Jubilee Singers

In 1873, a group of singers from Fisk University, a black college in Tennessee, became the first to publically sing spirituals. They gave concerts to raise money for the college. 

A story inspired by the Jubilee Singers

Frederick Douglass said this about slave music:

Frederick Douglass was born a slave. With help, he escaped slavery and became a leader to end slavery. His friends raised money to purchase his freedom from the man who owned him. Here's what Frederick Douglas had to say about slaves and music:

     "I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”



The link below is a PBS video clip that discusses how coded songs were used and what they meant.

History Detective: Slave Songs

A man discovers a book from 1867 titled "Slave Songs." He asks PBS's History Detective to investigate the origins of the book to determine if it is the first book of African American spirituals. The video runs close to 18 minutes and if you have the time, is interesting to watch.

What's Your Favorite?

Do you have a favorite song? Pick your favorite and then click on poll results. As your classmates vote, the poll results may change, so you might want to come back later and check the new results.

What's Your Favorite?
Follow the Drinking Gourd: 1 votes (50%)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: 0 votes (0%)
Michael, Row the Boat Ashore: 0 votes (0%)
Wade in the Water: 1 votes (50%)
Steal Away: 0 votes (0%)
Total Votes: 2

Books in our library

These are some of the books in the library on this topic.  You can search the Destiny catalog for these titles and others like them to learn more about them or come to the Library to check them out.