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Anthony Burns:
The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave

Virginia Hamilton

Grades 7-10

Anthony Burns may be considered an obscure person in American history, but his plight for freedom is worthy of study. Because he represents numerous slaves who escaped to the Northern states in search of freedom, the story of his life will illuminate the scant details regarding slavery in history books, and give students an accurate and heart- wrenching account of this bitter time.

This guide offers discussion questions related to the themes of courage, bondage, freedom, and hope. In addition, there are activities to link the language arts, social studies, science, math, music and art curriculum.


Thematic Connections

Courage–Ask students to describe Anthonyís courage. From whom did he gain his courage? Discuss the relationship between fear and courage. Think about the times when Anthonyís fear almost overtook his courage. Then ask each student to share what they think was Anthonyís most courageous moment. Discuss how Anthony Burnsís life might have been a symbol of courage for those fighting for civil rights in the 1960s.

Bondage — Ask students to define bondage. Discuss why the Free Soil party was against slavery in the North, but supported it in the South. Mars Suttle referred to his slaves as his property. He said, "The best management of my property is the keepiní of discipline." (p. 13). Ask students to discuss the difference between discipline and mistreatment. How does bondage imply mistreatment? How did Anthony deal with his bondage in Boston? Discuss how the guards might have been charged with mistreatment.

Freedom — Anthony is given the job of taking some of the Jims to the Hiring Ground in Stafford County. His Mamaw had always told him "freedom was north." How did Anthonyís idea of freedom change when he got to Boston? How did Anthony Burns become a symbol of freedom? Discuss the important role of the abolitionists as fighters for freedom. Why did Anthony decide to leave the United States and go to Canada?

Hope— Ask students to discuss how hope drives change. At what point in the book did Anthonyís plight seem hopeless? How did Anthony keep hope alive? How did people like Richard Henry Dana represent hope for Anthony and other Southern slaves?


Pre-reading Activity

Ask students to read "Selections from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850" and discuss it in class. (p. 181) Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the sections of the Act. Ask them to read the section and prepare an explanation of it section in clear and concise language. Groups should present their sections orally in class.


Interdisciplinary Connections

Social Studies
Virginia Hamilton includes a list of characters at the beginning of the book. Divide students into groups and assign each group names to research from the list. Ask each group to write a paragraph about each person to be included in a biographical dictionary.

Ask the class to research the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. What did each of these documents have to do with slavery? Ask students to locate and read about other documents that dealt with slavery.

Review with the class the role of famous buildings in Boston like the Revere House, Faneuil Hall, and the Court House in Anthony Burnsís plight for freedom. Then ask each student to select one of the buildings to study. Instruct them to write a short paper titled "If Walls Could Talk" for a historical magazine.

Ask students to illustrate one of the "sorrow songs" that they located in the music activity. Collect the songs and illustrations and bind them into a book. Ask students to think of an appropriate title for the songbook. Suggest that the book be placed in the school library.

Anthony often gathered slaves together and preached to them while they sang "sorrow songs." Ask students to locate "sorrow songs" and study the lyrics. Why were they called "sorrow songs?" What is a hymn? Why were "sorrow songs" considered hymns of slavery? Which of these songs are still sung today?

Some believe that slavery was an economic factor in the South. Large plantation owners claimed that they needed slaves as field hands. Ask students to find out how the plantations continued to operate after slavery ended. Instruct student to construct an illustrated timeline that shows the development of farm machinery from the end of slavery to the present.

Ask students to use an almanac or sites on the Internet to find out how many slaves managed to escape to the North with and without the aid of the Underground Railroad. Then construct a graph that compares these figures. Have the class study the graph and discuss which method of escape was the most successful.


Vocabulary/Use of Language

The vocabulary in the book isn’t difficult, but students should be encouraged to make note of unfamiliar words and try to define them by taking cues from the context of the book. Such words may include pungent (p. 28), bay (p. 33), dayclean (p. 34), affidavit (p. 36) claimant (p. 46), rendition (p. 47), rancor (p. 122), rebuttal (p. 140), recapitulate (p. 151), arduous (p. 151), and futile (p. 169).


Winner of the Boston GlobeñHorn Book Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award

A Coretta Scott King Honor Book

A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year


"This book does exactly what good biography for children ought to do: takes readers directly into the life of the subject and makes them feel what it was like to be that person in those times."–Starred, The Horn Book

"Moving and unforgettable."–Starred, School Library Journal


This true story of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave who set out on a journey for freedom, is also a tribute to the abolitionists who helped him and other slaves escape a life of bondage.

Set in 1854 when slavery was a way of life in the South, Anthony Burns, a slave on the Suttle Plantation in Virginia, escaped and was caught and imprisoned in Boston. Most of the slaves on the Suttle plantation felt that Anthony was "spoilt" because the master didnít make him work hard, but as Anthony sat in jail awaiting his court trial, he didnít feel "spoilt" at all.

Instead he felt frightened because the Fugitive Slave Act didnít protect escaped slaves in a free state like Massachusetts. Large groups of abolitionists rallied around Anthony, but their efforts were futile and Anthony was returned to his owner who in turn sold him to Mr. McDaniel in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Risking his own arrest for aiding a slave, Mr. McDaniel delivered Anthony to Baltimore where Anthony found freedom and many kind people who granted him opportunities beyond his dreams.


(by theme )

Jeffersonís Children: The Story of One American Family
Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman
Courage, Freedom, Bondage, Hope
Grades 7 up

Gary Paulsen
Courage, Freedom, Bondage, Hope
Grades 7-9

North by Night: A Story of the Underground Railroad
Katherine Ayres
Courage, Freedom, Bondage, Hope
Grades 5-8

Sarny: A Life Remembered
Gary Paulsen
Courage ï Prejudice ï Freedom
Grades 7 up


Teaching ideas prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library and Information Services, The South Carolina Governorís School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville, SC.

Internet Resources

The Fugitive Slave Act
An online text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Underground Railroad
An interactive journey on the Underground Railroad.

Living Under Enslavement
An interactive site that lets you "visit the home of an enslaved carpenter from the Hermitage Plantation in Georgia and explore the ways in which African Americans cared for their families, used their skills, preserved their African traditions, and resisted enslavement."


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