Appreciate Black STEM History with the Snail Mail Team

February is Black History Month and we’re excited to learn more about the Black Americans who have explored and utilized STEAM principles. Without them, our country would be a very different place. We hope you enjoy this issue and get excited about learning about some important history, people, and meeting a tractor named Justice! Take a moment and think about how you’re participating in Black History Month this year! Below is one of the activities featured in this month’s Snail Mail.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of safe routes, safe houses and friendly people that helped enslaved African Americans in the United States escape to freedom. One of the ways the Underground Railroad was able to stay secret was by using coded language.
By encoding their communication to look like normal railroad communication they were able to avoid detection and help bring people to freedom. This coded language helped ‘conductors’ (a guide, escort, or leader in the underground railroad) bring hundreds of enslaved people to freedom.
There were entire songs in code, such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, which was coded directions to aid in escape to the North. The “Drinking Gourd” is code for the Big Dipper. It equipped people with a form of celestial navigation to aid in their escape.
Below is a list of common coded terms used by conductors like William Still and Harriet Tubman and their meanings. Using these coded words and definitions, can you decode the message to understand what it means?

Decode the phrase below with the Key:

“The Station Master will be forwarding the Load of Potatoes to the Shepherds. The Shepherds will forward them to a Station Master in the Promised Land.”

Coded Phrase KEYDecoded Phrase’s Meaning
Bundles of WoodRunaways to be expected
Drinking GourdBig Dipper & North Star
ForwardingTaking runaways from station to station
Freedom TrainThe Underground Railroad
Heaven or Promised LandCanada
Load of PotatoesRunaways hidden underneath farm produce in a wagon
ParcelRunaways to be expected
PreachersLeaders and Speakers in the underground railroad
ShepherdsGuides that escorted runaways
StationPlace of safety and temporary refuge ; a safe house.
Station MasterKeeper of safe house.
StockholderDonor of money, clothing, or food to the underground railroad.

Decoded: A keeper of a safe house will transport hidden runaways in a wagon to a guide that will take them to someone with clothing, money, or food in Canada.