Stealing Freedom Study Guides


Teaching Activity: STEALING FREEDOM 


Today, people often think, "There’s no way I’d stay a slave. I’d escape!" Yet when we really understand the lives of slaves, we see that this decision was never simple or easy to make. This activity is designed to shed light on the complexities of the decision to run or to stay.

The Pros and Cons of Escape:

In STEALING FREEDOM you’ll find lots of information about the hardships slaves endured in their everyday lives, what kinds of things motivated slaves to run away or kept them from running, and what happened to runaway slaves if they were caught. Have students generate the following lists: (1) The bad things that could happen to you and the things you’d be giving up if you tried to escape. (2) The disadvantages of remaining a slave for life. (3) The positive things about running away and gaining freedom. (4) The positive things about remaining a slave, close to family members and with at least minimal food and shelter.

Then, divide students into groups of four or five. Each group should pick a volunteer to be the "slave" who will need to make the decision to run or to stay. Have these volunteers pick an identity (see below) out of a hat. (To avoid giggling, you may want to have a female identity hat and a male identity hat.) The identity gives a slave’s life situation, family relationships, state of health and other information pertinent to how motivated and/or successful he or she might be in an escape. Each volunteer returns to his or her group to discuss the question "Will you run?" The group should offer suggestions and advice, but the volunteer makes the final decision whether to go or to stay.

Allow about 5 – 10 minutes of discussion time. If some groups make a hasty "I will run" decision, tell them they need to now make plans for the escape: When will they leave? How will they obtain food for the journey? How will they keep from getting caught? Where will they go?

When the discussion time is over, the volunteers announce their decisions. A tally may be kept on the board as to who will run and who will not. This exercise will provide insight into the pressures slaves faced when considering as escape and will show why not everyone tried to escape. It can also shed light on who was more likely to try an escape: Many more men than women escaped, and women with small children were the least likely to run. Young, strong slaves were more likely to run than older slaves, especially those with physical ailments.


You are a young woman, nineteen years old. You have lived with the same master and mistress your whole life, and though they whip all their slaves cruelly for the slightest offense, they have kept your family together. Your mother, father, sister, and your two children live with you. Your husband lives two miles away and you are able to see him almost every Sunday. Your children are ages one and three—too young to walk far, and too young to be quiet if you tried to escape and hide. Will you run?

You are a man, almost sixty now—old and tired is how you’d describe yourself. You ran once when you were a young man, and when the slave catchers brought you back, your master broke both your legs. They never healed right, and now that you’re getting older, it hurts to walk. All of your family has been sold away and you wish you could see one of your children, or your wife, again before you die. But you don’t know where they have been sold to, and your master has refused your request for a travel pass. It hurts so much to walk, and at least here you get three meals a day—you’ve heard the stories about fugitives starving in the woods. Will you run?

You are a young man, 22 or so, and healthy. You are light-skinned, with straight auburn hair and hazel eyes. More than once you’ve been mistaken for the son of your master and mistress. (You are, in fact, the son of your master, which is why you look so much like him.) You believe that you could blend into white society and disappear if you could just get away. Your master has begun to send you on your own to do the marketing in town, which means you have a little money in your pocket. Will you run?

You are a woman, still strong and still young enough to have more children. Until recently you lived with your five children, ages 3 to 14. But your master, because of mounting debt, has sold all five of your children away from you. Your heart is broken, but not your spirit. Your master has sworn that if you run away he will have slave catchers hunt you down and kill you. Will you run?

You are a man in your mid twenties. You live with your mother and two younger sisters. Your master has recently "gotten religion" at a Methodist revival meeting, and has begun to use severe whippings to teach his slaves to "submit to their master" like it says in the Bible. You are enraged at the new harsh treatment, and believe that if you don’t get away soon, you will do something you’ll regret, like try to kill your master. You fear that if you run alone, your master may take out his wrath on your mother and sisters. Yet it seems impossible to make a safe escape with a woman and two young girls in tow. Will you run?

(The following identity is Ann Maria Weems. This with classes who have not yet finished STEALING FREEDOM.)

You are a young girl, just turned thirteen. Until recently you lived with your mother, older sister, and three brothers, all of whom are slaves, and your father, who is a free man. But in the past few months, your brothers have been sold south to Alabama, and your mother and sister have been freed by abolitionists. You remain the only slave in the home of your master and mistress, who are not unduly cruel, as these things go. Your mother, father, and sister live near you, and you hope to be allowed to visit them at Christmas time. If you run, you will have to go all the way to Canada to be safe (it’s post 1850), and will probably never see your family again. An abolitionist has offered you the chance to escape to Canada. Will you run?

All of the above identities are real people, taken from first-person slave narratives. These slave narratives are an excellent resource for creating more identities. (To Be a Slave, compiled by Julius Lester is a very good source). Also, feel free to change and adjust the above identities to meet the needs of your classroom (for example, when I work with children younger than 5th grade I rewrite the identities in simpler language and delete the line about the 22 year old man being the son of his master).

Courtesy of Random House Children's Books

About these books

Based on true stories before and after the Civil War, Elisa Carbone presents two courageous characters that come face-to- face with prejudice and bigotry and struggle to make new lives for themselves.

Ann Marie Weems, the main character in Stealing Freedom, is born a slave on a small Maryland farm where her family lives and works for the Price family. The Weems family endures cruelty common to all slaves during the pre-Civil War era, but Ann faces the ultimate mistreatment when she is separated from her family. Armed with courage and determination, Ann accepts an offer to travel via the dangerous Underground Railroad to Canada in an effort to steal her freedom.

Set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the late 1890s, Storm Warriors tells the story of a different type of racism. Nathan lives with his father and grandfather on Pea Island and dreams of becoming a storm warrior, one of those who fought the sea, wind, and storms to bring sailors home safely, but post Civil War racism threatens his chance to fulfill his dream unless he can find a way to win the battle.

Teaching Ideas

In the Classroom
The historical setting, the very real characters, and the strong sense of story make these novels by Carbone excellent choices for read-aloud or class novel study. Please note that these books do not need to be discussed together. Each title represents strong content that can be taught independent of one another, but the themes in both are similar enough to conduct a dual book study.

Discussion questions related to the themes of courage, freedom, prejudice and bigotry, and family offer students the opportunity to think about the tough choices that African Americans faced in the 1800s during pre- and post-Civil War times. This guide also offers activities that link the language arts, social studies, science, music, and art curriculum.

Pre-Reading Activity

Stealing Freedom is set before the Civil War, and Storm Warriors is set post-Civil War in the late 1800s. Engage students in a discussion regarding the treatment of African Americans during these times. Ask them to make a split-screen collage that contrasts the way African Americans lived pre- and post-Civil War. Encourage them to use photocopied pictures, writing, quotations, etc. in their collages.

Thematic Connections

Courage--In Stealing Freedom, Ann wonders, "which required more courage: to be a fugitive, or to be the one to help the fugitive to safety." (p. 213) Engage the class in a discussion about the courage it took for both parties.

Ask students to consider which required more courage in Storm Warriors: to be the rescuer or the rescued? Nathan says, "I know it takes courage to meet a storm head on. . . ." (p. 74, Storm Warriors) Compare and contrast Ann and Nathan's courage. What is Ann's "storm"?

Freedom--Ask students to explain what Ann's father means when he says, "Anyone born a slave gets their freedom stolen the day they're born." (p. 19, Stealing Freedom) What is the irony in the phrase "stealing freedom"? When Ann is in hiding at Mr. Bigelow's house, she says, "How strange it felt to be free and yet to be a prisoner." (p. 163, Stealing Freedom)

Compare Ann's feeling to Nathan's in Storm Warriors. What is Nathan's prison? Figuratively, how does Nathan have to steal his freedom?

Prejudice and Bigotry--Stealing Freedom is set pre-Civil War when mistreatment of African Americans was overt, whereas Storm Warriors is set post-Civil War when racial prejudice was present but less obvious. How might Nathan's Grandpa identify with the bigotry that Ann feels in Stealing Freedom?

Have the class read the "Author's Note" at the end of Storm Warriors. How did racial prejudice and bigotry contribute to the fact that the keeper and the crew of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station weren't honored with the Gold Life-Saving Medal until 100 years later?

Family--Ask students to discuss how the Weems family in Stealing Freedom has a stronger sense of family than the Price family. Define the term "extended family." How do the people involved with the Underground Railroad become a surrogate family to Ann? Describe Nathan's family in Storm Warriors. Discuss how the surfmen on Pea Island might be considered an extended family for Nathan.

Interdisciplinary Connections

Language Arts--In pre-Civil War days, it was against the law to teach a slave to read. Ann learns to read when she tends to Sarah, a relative of Master Charles and Mistress Carol. Read Nightjohn or Sarny: A Life Remembered by Gary Paulsen. Write a letter that Ann might write to Nightjohn or Sarny commending them for their work in teaching African Americans to read.

In Storm Warriors, Nathan feels extremely close to his grandfather. He listens to his grandfather's stories and wishes that his grandfather's dreams could have been fulfilled. Ask students to assume the role of Nathan and write a tribute to be read at his grandfather's funeral.

Social Studies--In Stealing Freedom, Ann travels by the Underground Railroad to Canada. Have students construct a map of Eastern United States and indicate the major routes of the Underground Railroad. Using clues from the novel, plot the route that Ann Weems possibly traveled.

The United States Life-Saving Service later became the United States Coast Guard. Ask students to research the history of the Coast Guard. Then have them develop a timeline of the work of the United States Coast Guard, from its birth on August 4, 1790, to the present.

Music--Ann Weems loves to sing. Ask students to locate and learn some of the African American work songs and spirituals that Ann may have sung. Also have students find seafaring songs that Nathan may have enjoyed in Storm Warriors.

Art--United States postage stamps often honor outstanding and courageous Americans. Have students find pictures of postage stamps that have honored African Americans. Then have them design a stamp that honors the Pea Island Life-Saving crew.

Science--The men at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station in Storm Warriors communicate using Morse code. Ask students to research Samuel Morse. How might Morse code be considered an early life-saving device? What signals and codes do ships and life-saving stations use today?

In Storm Warriors, Nathan takes books from the Life-Saving Station and learns about medical treatments that might be necessary in rescue missions. Have students research the type of first-aid materials that might have been available in the late 1890s. Then have them construct a first-aid kit that might be used in rescue missions today. How have first-aid measures changed in the past 100 years?

Vocabulary/Use of Language

Ask students to record unfamiliar words and try to define the words using clues from the context of the story. In Stealing Freedom, such words may include ferreting (p. 44), lecherous (p. 45), mulatto (p. 73), guano (p. 76), apparition (p. 97), placid (p.113), exorbitant (p. 158), and daguerreotype (p. 213).

In Storm Warriors, such words may include phantom (p. 15), vermilion (p. 18), resuscitation (p. 19), hypothermia (p. 72), vendue (p. 95), seine (p. 111), and rogue (p. 136).

Prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services, the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville, South Carolina.

Reviews and Awards

Reviews for Stealing Freedom

*"A deftly crafted story with a strong, appealing heroine."--Starred, School Library Journal

*"Imaginatively and sensitively adapted from historical records, Stealing Freedom will evoke admiration for the courage of both those who resisted slavery and those who endured it."--Starred, Publishers Weekly

Review for Storm Warriors

"This is a beautifully told story, marked by convincing, distinctive characters and stirring descriptions of the surfmen's highly skilled and highly dangerous work."--School Library Journal