The Secret to Freedom

By Marcia Vaughan
Illustrations by Larry Johnson

Great Aunt Lucy tells her grandniece the story of an old quilt square which symbolizes an important role played by quilts in alerting slaves about escape plans during the pre Civil War years. Lucy’s brother brings home some quilts from another plantation where he has been on loan. He explains how each quilt pattern has a special meaning for slaves planning to escape on the Underground Railroad. For example the monkey wrench pattern means “collect tools needed” and the wagon wheel pattern means “pack belongings”. Whenever an escape is to take place, Lucy hangs out the quilt indicated by her brother. He then leads the runaways to where their journey will begin. When Albert is caught off the plantation and whipped one night, he knows he too will have to run. Lucy remains behind knowing that she would only slow down her brother because she is lame, but she gives her brother a quilt square with a bright yellow star on it for good luck. Many years later, after the war is over, Lucy receives the quilt scrap in the mail and learns that her brother is alive and well and coming to visit her.

The Underground Railroad was a covert system of trails, people, and safe houses that helped slaves escape during the years 1804 to 1865 when slavery was abolished. More than 75,000 fugitives made their way from southern plantations to states in the North or to Canada. The runaways were known as “passengers,” the guides were called “conductors,” the safe houses were “stations,” and those who hid the slaves in their homes were “stationmasters.” Since most slaves did not know how to read or write, and few had ever been off the plantation, a system of codes and secret signals was used to pass along information needed by the fugitives. Among these signs were specific quilt patterns. The quilts were hung outside on railings to convey their messages. See the Author’s Note at the end of this guide for information about the meanings of the most important quite patterns. The patterns are also pictured on the back cover of the book.

Before Reading
Prereading Focus Questions
Before introducing the book, you may wish to have students discuss one or more of the following questions as a motivation for reading.

  1. What is a quilt? Who makes quilts? How are quilts different from other bed coverings?
  2. How can you communicate without using words?
  3. What is a code? Why are codes secret? When do people use codes?
  4. What does it mean to be brave? What is the bravest thing you have ever done? Why did you do it?
  5. What does the word “freedom” mean to you? How would you feel if you did not have the freedoms that you do?
 Teaching Tip
 You may wish to feature The Secret to Freedom as part of your  celebration of Black History Month in February, or as part of a unit on  slavery.

Exploring the Book
Write the book title on the board. Ask students: What is freedom? Why do you think there is a secret to it in this story?

Display the book and invite students to examine the cover illustration. Ask students what they think is the girl holding. What might that have to do with freedom? Who are the people in the background?

Setting a Purpose for Reading
Ask students to read to find out what the secret is in this story, and how it relates to freedom.

Write the following birthday-related words from the book on the chalkboard. Challenge students to think of different ways to sort the words. For example: food, things to do at a party, kinds of celebrations. Encourage students to add other words to each category. Then have students take turns using the words in their own sentences.

great aunt                 seamstress blacksmith
overseer slave trader master
mistress slave runaway
patroller sharecropper                 mailman

After Reading
Discussion Questions
After students have read the book, use these or similar questions to help guide their understanding of the book. Encourage students to refer to passages in the book to support their responses.

  1. Who is telling the story in the beginning of the book? Who tells most of the story? Why do you think the narrator changes?
  2. What kinds of work did Great Aunt Lucy’s mother, father, and brother do on the plantation?
  3. Why did Lucy’s parents leave?
  4. How did Albert find out about the Underground Railroad?
  5. Why were the quilts important?
  6. How did Albert help the runaways? Why did he end up running away too? What dangers did the runaways face?
  7. Why didn’t Lucy leave with her brother? What do you think this shows about Lucy?
  8. Why did Lucy give Albert a quilt square? What was its significance?
  9. How did Lucy’s life change after the Civil War? How did her life stay the same?
  10. How did Lucy learn that Albert was still alive? How do you think she felt after learning the news?

Literature Circles
If you use literature circles during reading time, students might find the following suggestions helpful in focusing on the different roles of the group members.

  • The Questioner might use questions similar to those in the Discussion Questions section of this guide to help group members explore the book.
  • The Passage Locator might look for passages that relate to Lucy’s feelings at different points in the story.
  • The Illustrator might draw scenes of Albert’s escape.
  • The Connector might find out about the meanings of other quilts.
  • The Summarizer might provide a brief summary of the group’s reading and discussion points for each meeting.
  • The Investigator might find out about other stories of escape by slaves in the South before the Civil War. For example, they might learn about the journeys of Harriet Tubman, who escaped in 1849 and then returned to lead many others to freedom after that.

There are many resource books available with more information about organizing and implementing literature circles. Three such books you may wish to refer to are: *Getting Started with Literature Circles* by Katherine L. Schlick Noe and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 1999), *Literature Circles: Voice And Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups* by Harvey Daniels (Stenhouse, 2002), and *Literature Circles Resource Guide* by Bonnie Campbell Hill, Katherine L. Schlick Noe, and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 2000).

Reader's Response
Use the following questions or similar ones to help students engage with the story and personalize the text. Students might respond in reader’s journals, oral discussion, or drawings.

  1. Would you have dared to act as Albert did? Would you have stayed behind as Lucy did? Why or why not?
  2. What did you learn about slavery in this book? What did you learn about the Underground Railroad?
  3. Why do you think Lucy worked so hard to learn to read and then spent time teaching others?
  4. Why were the quilts a good way to communicate information? How else might slaves have given secret messages to one another?

Other Writing Activities
You may wish to have students participate in one or more of the following writing activities. Set aside time for them to share and discuss their work.

  1. Albert sends the quilt square and a letter to Lucy after the war. Imagine that you are Lucy. Write a letter back to Albert.
  2. Make up a code with a friend. Write something in your code. Then see if classmates can read or “break” it.
  3. Challenge students to retell the story of The Secret to Freedom from the point of view of Albert.

ELL/ESL Teaching Strategies

These strategies might be helpful to use with students who are English language learners or who are learning to speak English as a second language.

  1. Preteach key vocabulary to help keep English language learners focused on the story. Post these essential key words in the classroom where students can access them easily.
  2. Record a reading of the story on an audiocassette or CD. Allow students to listen to the recording as they follow along in the book.
  3. Model how to use the illustrations to enhance the meaning of the text. As you read aloud, comment on how an illustration provides clues to the words.
  4. Have students write or dictate questions about the book. Set aside time to help students explore these queries.

Interdisciplinary Activities
To help students integrate their reading experiences with other curriculum areas, you might try some of the following activities.

Social Studies
1. Provide a map of the various routes used by escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. Help students identify places along the routes.

2. Help students research the Underground Railroad. They will find many useful resources on the Internet including the the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

3. Students might also learn more about plantation life before the Civil War and explore why this way of life was so dependent on slavery.

Language Arts

Write these similes from the book on the chalkboard. Teach students that a simile is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things using the words like or as. Then have students identify the two things being compared in each simile.

  • My back ached like an old mule’s.
  • That brother of mine was wily as a fox.
  • Albert would steal away quiet as a cat.
  • Lucy’s heart thundered like a drum.

Explain that the fugitive slaves traveled at night through fields, woods, and swamps to avoid detection. The North Star served as a guide on clear nights. The North Star, also known as Polaris, is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. Help students identify this constellation, as well as the Big Dipper, on a star map. They may also wish to try finding these constellations in the sky on a clear night.

Encourage students to study the patchwork quilt patterns shown on the back cover of the book and read about the meaning of each. Then challenge them to design their own patterns that convey “secret” messages.

Have students learn the words to the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Then help students decode the song to find the directions to freedom. You might also introduce two other songs used by fugitives: “Chariot’s a Coming” was sung to announce the arrival of a conductor (guide) on the Underground Railroad, and “Good News Neighbor” was sung to report the safe arrival of a fugitive in free territory.

Author's Note
In the years before the Civil War began in 1861, the Underground Railroad helped more than 75,000 slaves reach freedom. The Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad, and it did not go underground. It was a secret system of pathways and trails that guided escaping slaves from Southern plantations to the Northern states and Canada where slavery was illegal

Members of the Underground Railroad were black and white, male and female, free citizens, slaves, and former slaves who had gained their freedom. Runaway slaves were called “passengers,” while those who guided them along the way were called “conductors.” “Stationmasters” were people who hid the runaways in their homes or other safe buildings called “stations.”

Most slaves had never set foot off their plantations and knew little about the North or how to reach it. Because of this, signs, symbols, and codes were used to transmit important information to slaves planning to escape on the Underground Railroad. Common quilt patterns made up one of these codes. The quilts could be hung out to air without being noticed by the plantation owner, yet for slaves who knew the code, the quilt patterns told them how to plan and carry out their escape.

The most important quilt patterns in the Underground Railroad code are described below. There are also pictures of them on the back cover of the book.

  • The monkey wrench pattern alerted slaves to gather the tools and supplies they would need when they escaped.
  • The wagon wheel pattern told slaves to pack their belongings and provisions to help them survive their journey.
  • The tumbling blocks pattern announced that it was time to escape.
  • The bear’s paw pattern instructed runaways to follow the bear tracks through the mountains, staying away from roads.
  • The crossroads pattern directed escaping slaves to travel to Cleveland, Ohio, the major crossroad to Canada.
  • The log cabin pattern indicated stations where runaways were hidden along the way.
  • The shoofly pattern referred to the conductors who guided slaves north on the Underground Railroad.
  • The bow tie pattern told slaves to dress in better clothing and disguises so they would not stand out.
  • The flying geese pattern instructed runaways to follow the migrating geese north in spring.
  • The drunkard’s path pattern told escaping slaves to move in a crooked or zigzag path, avoiding major roads.
  • The star pattern advised runaways to use the stars and constellations as a map to locating the North Star, a guiding light to freedom.


About This Title

Guided Reading:




Interest Level:

Grades 1 - 5

Reading Level:

Grades 2 - 3


United States History, Slavery, Discrimination, African/African American Interest, Art, Poverty


Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Historical Fiction Grades PreK-2, Early Fluent Dual Language, English Guided Reading Level M, Early Fluent English, Black History Collection, Grades K-2, Sibling Collection Grades K-5, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades K-2, African American English Collection Grades 3-6, Teachers' Choices Collection, Persistence and Determination Collection

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