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Program about Underground Railroad provides high school class with lesson on slavery in Missouri

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Underground Railroad program

A program about the Underground Railroad was recently put on by Dorris Keeven-Franke, who is part of the Missouri Germans Consortium, for Joe Hunter’s applied history class at Elsberry High School.

Keeven-Franke said she’s been working with Hunter for years, developing programs about Germans and African Americans.

This program, she noted, was done for Hunter’s applied history class, and shared with the public. It was hosted by the Missouri Germans Consortium, a group that is interested in having the German history of the state explained.

“There have been many programs I’ve done, where he (Hunter) has tried to get his school to, and couldn’t. Because of COVID, I have started visiting classrooms like St. Charles Community College and Joe’s, and others were there as well,” she said.

Keeven-Franke is an author and historian in St. Charles. She is also executive director of the Missouri Germans Consortium. Through the consortium she does projects with the Missouri Historical Society, Missouri Humanities Council, and many others. See https://mo-germans.com. According to the website, the consortium was formed in 1885 “to provide sociability and support for immigrants from Baden who were in need. It continues to look to offer ongoing support to the members’ survivors.”

Keeven-Franke said the program about the Underground Railroad—the means by which escaping slaves could travel to freedom—was done in part for Black History Month. It was also done to raise awareness of the cross-cultural ties between German Americans and African Americans, she explained.

Hunter, who has been teaching at Elsberry High School since 2002, said the applied history class developed from an advanced placement project.

“I had a student who had an abandoned cemetery on her property and she wanted to learn more about it, so we scrapped the traditional research, and researched the people who were buried there,” Hunter said. “The students enjoyed the research, and the following year, I started teaching applied history, which is a combination of local and regional history along with genealogy. Some of the better research projects are published on my website at elsberryhistorical.org.”

Hunter explained that his class is in the middle of a wide-range of research topics.

“I have one student researching the Underground Railroad in Missouri and another who is researching the impact of African Americans in the Civil War. I was hoping to get into research methodologies,” for this program, he added, “but the lunch bell rang. And because of COVID, we are really restricted and the students couldn’t stick around because the next class was arriving.”

He did add that there were class discussions after the program about German immigrant’s role in the state’s move away from slavery.

Hunter noted that he has a wide range of students in his classroom.

“Many have German roots and many have families who settled this region long before Elsberry was established. Right now, we do not have students who are specifically researching their German heritage, but I did have a student a few years ago who focused her research on Hermann heritage. Her research can be found at http://elsberryhistorical.org/items/show/148.

During the program, Keeven-Franke said slavery had existed in the Missouri territory for 50 years before Missouri became a state. A bill was introduced in 1819 to make Missouri a state.

Life was difficult for slaves. She noted that the laws from 1809 forbade slaves from leaving their master’s property and prohibited them from carrying firearms. They did not have the right to assemble or speak against the government, she added.

Other rules, she noted affected how the slaves traveled between plantations.

In addition to the laws governing slaves, there were also codes that provided guidelines to the owners on how they were to treat their slaves.

There were also codes that governed free blacks living in the territory, Keeven-Franke said. Within those codes were provisions that various offenses could result in a free black’s re-enslavement.

She said that Germans who emigrated to Missouri were antislavery, and many of them ended up serving in Lincoln’s Union Army.

“The German newspaper in Hermann reprinted ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in their language so they could understand it,” she said.

She also noted that the Germans at that time did not like slavery for two major reasons—because of the civil rights issue and it limited the employment field. It was cheaper to have slaves than to hire German laborers. She said the wealthy controlled politics and the laws. 

“That’s when the Germans decided to become more involved in local government,” she explained.

These Germans became abolitionists, which prompted the state legislature to enact laws to curtail the movement.

Because of these laws, she added, people could not trust their neighbors to not turn them in for helping escaping slaves, and that brought about the Underground Railroad.

Because St. Louis is situated along the Mississippi River, a major north-south conduit, it became part of the Underground Railroad.

“It was a perfect escape route,” she said. Many of the those routes stretched west from the St. Louis area. Escaping slaves that made it to St. Louis, she said, would cross the river into Illinois and then travel north into Canada.

The Underground Railroad she said was not an actual railroad, but a network of abolitionists, antislavery people and friends that could be trusted to hide and/or transport slaves until they reached their freedom.

Keeven-Franke said she would be happy to share this program with other schools.

“Now that it is recorded, it could be shown to them. Then I could come in virtually and do discussion/question and answers. I can provide handouts appropriate to the grade level.”

Hunter said, “I absolutely love my job. I especially enjoy the applied history class. It is not a traditional history course. Students are not memorizing a bunch of people and events, regurgitating them on a test, and forgetting it by the time they leave school. Instead, we focus on historical thinking skills. Students dive into the digital archives and follow their own research interests.”

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