SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION in the classroom, at home, in conjunction with viewing the exhibition or reading the publication

NOTE: NOTE: Topics were compiled for the traveling exhibition Programming Guide for Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad by © 2018 ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. 


The first ten amendments to the Constitution make up the Bill of Rights. These were written by James Madison in 1791 and outline the rights of people and governmental power. In addition to granting people freedom of religion and speech, they also give individuals the right of privacy—to be free of “unwarranted government intrusion into one’s personal and private affairs, papers, and possessions, and give a person the right to be treated fairly by the government and equally regardless of social status (given a trial etc.).”


Article [IV] (Amendment 4 - Search and Seizure)
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Article [V] (Amendment 5 - Rights of Persons)
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Article [VI] (Amendment 6 - Rights of Accused in Criminal Prosecutions)
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Article [VII] (Amendment 7 - Civil Trials)
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Do the Articles written here seem fair, just, and equal to you as they are written? Why or why not?


Excerpt from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (1 Stat. 302)
An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters.
Section 2. And be it further enacted, That any agent appointed as aforesaid, who shall receive the fugitive into his custody, shall be empowered to transport him or her to the State or Territory from which he or she shall have fled. And if any person or persons shall, by force, set at liberty, or rescue the fugitive from such agent while transporting, as aforesaid, the person or persons so offending shall, on conviction, be fined not exceeding five hundred dollars, and be imprisoned not exceeding one year.

This legislation:
• allowed a slave owner to seize an escaped slave.
• present the slave before a federal or local judge, and, upon proof of ownership, receive a certificate authorizing the slave to be retaken.
• established a penalty of $500 for obstructing an owner's efforts to retake a slave, or for rescuing, harboring, or concealing a fugitive slave.

Excerpt from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462)
Section 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such claimant, by the Circuit or District Court for the district of such marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant, for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the State, Territory, or District whence he escaped: and the better to enable the said commissioners, when thus appointed, to execute their duties faithfully and efficiently, in conformity with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are hereby authorized and empowered, within their counties respectively, to appoint, in writing under their hands, any one or more suitable persons, from time to time, to execute all such warrants and other process as may be issued by them in the lawful performance of their respective duties; with authority to such commissioners, or the persons to be appointed by them, to execute process as aforesaid, to summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county, when necessary to ensure a faithful observance of the clause of the Constitution referred to, in conformity with the provisions of this act; and all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required, as aforesaid, for that purpose; and said warrants shall run, and be executed by said officers, any where in the State within which they are issued.

This legislation:
• did not allow slaves to testify at a hearing.
• gave commissioners twice as much compensation (ten dollars) for granting certificates authorizing a slave to be taken as for denying them.
• made Federal marshals financially liable for not trying to execute warrants for escaped slaves and for allowing fugitives to escape.
• increased penalties for obstructing slave owners or helping fugitives which included imprisonment.

Why didn’t enslaved persons fall under the scope of the original Bill of Rights language written in 1791? It states “people” and protects individuals rights. . . ?

Enslaved individuals were indeed part of America’s population during the early settlement of the American colonies and at the time the Constitution was written. It was assumed however, the word “people” in the constitution only applied to men—white men. Women, Native Americans, and African Americans were not included as having rights under the constitution. Instead of constitutional rights, enslaved individuals were governed by "slave codes" that ensured they could not go to court, make contracts, or own any property.

According to the slave codes, slaves could be whipped, branded, imprisoned without trial, and hanged. Slaves could not testify against a white person nor could they serve on a jury. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, although some were taught by whites in order to read the Christian Bible. Although seen as “Christians” in the eyes of whites, black slaves were not allowed to marry or be recognized as married in the church.

Do the Articles written here after knowing the context of 1791 and reading the subsequent Fugitive Slave Acts seem fair, just, and equal to you as they are written? Why or why not?


The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery to this day. (1865)

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens, including African Americans. (1866 and ratified 1868)

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (1869 and ratified 1870)

Even though these amendments were adopted more than one hundred years ago in our American history, do you feel as a whole our country is fair, just, and equal today in terms of equality and race? Why or why not?

What could you do to promote fairness, equality, and justice in your school, community, city, or state?



Read aloud excerpts from Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself, 1845, documents written by slaves in the Library of Congress online holdings, or excerpts from the book A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation, written by David W. Blight.

Excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ written narrative:
Here, too, the slaves of all the other farms received their monthly allowance of food, and their yearly clothing. The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars. The allowance of the slave children was given to their mothers, or the old women having the care of them. The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these. This, however, is not considered a very great privation. They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day’s work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed, — the cold, damp floor, — each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver’s horn.

At the sound of this, all must rise, and be off to the field. There must be no halting; every one must be at his or her post; and woe betides them who hear not this morning summons to the field; for if they are not awakened by the sense of hearing, they are by the sense of feeling: no age nor sex finds any favor. Mr. Severe, the overseer, used to stand by the door of the quarter, armed with a large hickory stick and heavy cowskin, ready to whip any one who was so unfortunate as not to hear, or, from any other cause, was prevented from being ready to start for the field at the sound of the horn.

Mr. Severe was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy. From the rising till the going down of the sun, he was cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the field, in the most frightful manner. His career was short. He died very soon after I went to Colonel Lloyd’s; and he died as he lived, uttering, with his dying groans, bitter curses and horrid oaths. His death was regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence.

What surprised you after hearing a personal account?

How do you think people felt trying to escape a life in slavery? Why?

Some individuals planning escape faced family members afraid to go and risk punishment or death. Why else might it be difficult to leave a bad situation for the unknown?

If you were faced with this situation, what would you do?

Slavery was legal in the United States until only 151 years ago. Does this seem like a long time ago or more recent? Why?



Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales has created this series of photographs depicting sites along the Underground Railroad to convey to viewers what it might have felt like or looked like to be traveling in the cover of darkness, hiding, trying to escape an enslaved life. Study several of the works in the photographs section and discuss them using the questions below.

What do you see in this photograph?

What is missing? Why?

What is the mood expressed though the imagery and through the contrast (dark and light tones) in the work?

Although these images are created in the current era (not at the time before the Emancipation Proclamation) do they seem of the past or present? What do you see that makes you think this?

What else do you think about when viewing these photographs? Why?

Why do you think the majority of these photographs were taken at night?

If you viewed these images without the quotations, the labels, and title of the series, would you still interpret them in the same way? Why or why not?