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Underground Railroad: The William Still Story

Hidden Messages in Spirituals

Intermediate (grades 6 - 8)

1- 2 class periods


Program Segments

Freedom's Land

NYS Core Curriculum - Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, 6 - 12


  • Craft and Structure (meaning of words)


  • Test Types and Purposes (organize ideas, develop topic with facts)
  • Production and Distribution of Writing (develop, organize appropriate to task)
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge (short research project, using term effectively)

NCSS Themes

       I.     Culture and Cultural Diversity
       II.    Time, Continuity and Change
       III.   People, Places, and Environments
       IV.   Individual Development and Identity
       V.    Individuals, Groups and Institutions
       VIII. Science, Technology, and Society


Students will be able to:

  • understand the concept and historical context of spirituals
  • read and listen to spirituals
  • discover the meaning of the secret messages found in the lyrics of spirituals
  • compose a personal spiritual that includes a line from a known spiritual

Focus Questions

  • How did spirituals help to preserve African culture during slavery?
  • What are some of the hidden messages in spirituals?
  • How can lyrics of spirituals reflect personal meanings?

Key Concepts

Metaphor, Spirituals, Poetry, Lyrics, Interpretation, Self-Reflection

Instructional Resources


  1. Watch the Underground Railroad: The William Still Story segments on spirituals.
  2. Explain how spirituals are different from hymns and psalms because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave. Be sure to discuss the significant dual meaning found in the lyrics and their purpose for fugitive slaves (codes, faith).
  3. Play the song using an Internet site, mp3 file, or CD, (stopping periodically to explain parts of the song).
  4. Have students fill out the Coded Lyrics Worksheet while discussing the meaning as a class.
  5. Play the song again, uninterrupted.
  6. Ask each student to choose a unique line from a box of pre-cut Student Spiritual Lyrics.
  7. Allow the students at least twenty minutes to compose their own spirituals offering the following instructions before students begin to write:
    • Spirituals should reflect the life of a slave and/or impending travel on the Underground Railroad
    • The student's selected spiritual lyric must be included at least once in their songs
    • Songs should be creative and engaging
    • Students should use metaphors and can include their own "code" with a key for the teacher
    • Any historical facts need to be accurate
  8. Must meet length requirement (determined ahead of time by teacher)
  9. When the students are done with their poems/songs ask for a few to read or sing to the class.

Assessment Tasks

The Students will identify the hidden meanings in spirituals based on class discussion and Coded Lyrics Worksheets. The students will also compose their own spiritual. 

William Still quote
Image of the auction block
The auction block
Courtesy University of Virginia
Photo of five generations on Smith's plantation
Five generations on Smith's plantation
Courtesy Library of Congress
Photo of slaves picking cotton in fields
Picking Cotton in Fields

Underground Railroad: The William Still Story is a co-production of WNED PBS and 90th Parallel Productions Ltd, Toronto.

Underground Railroad: The William Still Story was made by The Canada Media Fund, Canadian National Railway, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – a private corporation funded by the American People. With additional support from David W. Pretty, Vernon Achber, and Phil Lind. And by PBS.