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Vigilant Committee and the Underground Railroad

The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia operated between 1837 and 1852; it was the secret auxiliary of the Vigilant Association. The Vigilant Association was a group formed by the ardent abolitionist, Robert Purvis, in August 1837 to publicly promote antislavery ideology and "to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress." The Vigilant Committee's purpose was to appoint offices, raise revenue, and have resources readily available to assist runaway slaves while they stayed in or passed through Philadelphia. The organization dissolved in 1852. That same year, a new Vigilance Committee was created during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, with Robert Purvis as the head of the General Committee and William Still as the chairman.

Through the examination of the Vigilant Association’s activities, students will explore Pennsylvania's role in the Underground Railroad. The lessons within this unit are designed to have students understand the Underground Railroad as an intricate system powered by personal motivation and determination for freedom, with support and aid from individuals in the larger, particularly free black, communities. The Vigilant Committee records provide details of the kinds of services and resources this committee made available to fugitive slaves; these services included legal aid, medical expenses, transportation costs, etc. The William Still journal and the Vigilance Committee expenditure reports allow students to develop a profile of the fugitive slave seeking aid in Philadelphia. The compelling documentation of the names, ages, physical descriptions, treatment, personal motivations, skills, and the details of the physical and emotional journeys of fugitive slaves on Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad provide rich content for the discussion of slavery and escape. These resources also reveal another aspect of the Underground Railroad, the financial cost of caring.



African American

Civil War




Big Ideas

Historical Context

Pennsylvania History

Essential Questions

  • How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to Pennsylvania society?

  • Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.

  • Conflict and cooperation among social groups, organizations, and nation-states are critical to comprehending society in the Pennsylvania. Domestic instability, ethnic and racial relations, labor relation, immigration, and wars and revolutions are examples of social disagreement and collaboration.


  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Summarize how conflict and compromise in Pennsylvania history impact contemporary society.

Background Material for Teacher

Blockson, Charles. “Philadelphia County.” The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania Jacksonville, NC: Flame International, 1981, pp 8-32.

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania”provides the reader with a detailed historical background of anti-slavery attitudes in Philadelphia County. The author writes in great detail about the routes of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, the role of the Vigilant Committee and the influence of other anti-slavery societies.

Borome, Joseph A. “The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia.”  Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 92 (January 1968), 320- 351.

This article provides the reader with various primary sources from the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia including the minutes of committee meetings.

Switala, William J. ”Philadelphia Network,” Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001, pp 141-151.

Switala provides background information on the development of the city of Philadelphia in an important hub on the Underground Railroad. The book sheds light on the role clergymen played as agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia

End of Unit Assessment

Have students write in a journal pretending to be a member of the Vigilant Committee. The journal should be about four pages long with each journal entry being about a page long. The journal should meet the following criteria& answer the following questions:

  • Have a description of the conditions of fugitive slaves they have helped and what other societies or clergymen are helping them hide these fugitive slaves.

  • Mention how the passing of fugitive slave laws have made their services risky. Why do they keep helping fugitive slaves if it could be potentially dangerous?

For completion of this assessment student can use outside sources but will also be provided a copy of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and an excerpt from the journal of William Still.

To complete this end of unit assessment, student should be given an extended amount of time outside the classroom.  Their work should be evaluated on how well they:

  • Contrast the role groups and individuals from Pennsylvania played in the social, political, cultural, and economic development of the U.S.

  • Evaluate how conflict and cooperation among individuals and groups in Pennsylvania made it possible for them to influence the outcome of slavery in the US.


Plans in this Unit

The Vigilant Committee and the Underground Railroad

Fugitive Slaves: The Cost of Caring

William Still "The Underground Railroad" Book Reviews

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content






PA Core Standards




Some of these materials were made possible with generous support from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the Lindback Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The Review lesson plan was made possible through HEAD to the Future, a partnership of HSP and Wells Fargo.


Some of lessons were created as part of a series about abolition that was placed on an older HSP website and was not created in the format we presently use. Therefore, please excuse some discrepancies in formatting and lack of fully digitized sources.

About the Author

The lessons on the "Vigilant Committee" and the "Cost of Caring" were created by Jennifer Coval and the lesson on "The Underground Railraod" book and reviews was created by Alicia Parks, Wells Fargo Education Manager. Updated for SAS by Philip McCarthy, Education Intern, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Lesson Plan

From Fugitive Slaves to Free Americans, 1855 to 1864

Unit Plan

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Free Black Community


Uncovering William Still's Underground Railroad

Blog Post

Exploring the Underground Railroad

Blog Post

Teaching the Underground Railroad

Blog Post

Celebrating Juneteenth

Attention Teachers!

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