African American Spirituals

Subject: Social Studies

Lesson Length: 50 - 55 mins

Topic: U.S. History/Underground Railroad

Grade Level: 5

Standards / Framework:

Brief Description: Students will learn how some African American spirituals became necessary for exchanging secret messages among fugitive slaves for safe movement along the Underground Railroad.

Know Before You Start:

  • Before you begin, prepare to play several African American spirituals, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."  

  • Print the lyrics to several of these songs for the class, linked below.

  • Vocabulary e.g., Underground Railroad, spiritual, enslavement, slavery, codes, decoding, faith, religion, fugitive.

Hook:

  • Play the "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" spiritual for your class. 

  • Explain that during the time of the Underground Railroad, songs such as these included secret codes which helped slaves escape to the North. Some spirituals served as maps, some gave directions, while others warned of danger.

  • Play the song a second time. Have students listen for hidden meanings or codes. 

  • When the song is done, ask them to turn to their partner and share what hidden meanings or codes they figured out. 

  • As a class, discuss the coding found in the words; emphasizing words/phrases with dual meanings.

Activity: It’s time to create! 

  • Share the lyrics of several spirituals, linked below.

  • Have students select one.

    • Can they find any codes?

    • What hidden meanings might the lyrics convey? 

  • Read and discuss the sample comic. Using the sample comic as a guide, have students create a one-panel comic that decodes this African American spiritual.

  • The comic should convey the hidden meaning from the spiritual they believe  that the fugitive slaves might have used to guide them along the Underground Railroad.

Closure: Conduct a gallery walk for students to view the other groups’ decoding. Give students the opportunity to listen to the song each group used.

Discuss the spirituals further:

  • How did spirituals help to preserve African culture during slavery?
  • How can lyrics of spirituals reflect personal meanings?

Differentiation:

  • Allow students to work with partner.
  • Allow students to use a Story Starter.

Resources:

Suggested Story Starters: