Slavery in America: Agency of enslaved people
Years: 1619 to 1870
Slavery was a reality of American life for nearly 250 years, with major implications for the country's social, economic, and political development. The perspectives of people who lived in slavery are reflected only rarely in historical documents. Far from being only passive victims of oppression, enslaved people expressed agency in their lives and actions in many ways. This unit examines these key questions about slavery in America:
- How did enslaved people excercise agency in their lives?
- How did the system of American slavery change over time?
- How was American slavery different in different times and places?
This 5-day project examines the history of slavery in America from the perspectives of enslaved people, and by studying population shifts and geographic factors affecting slavery. Students will observe changes over time in the populations of free and enslaved people, and connect these observations with the perspectives of enslaved people reflected in historical documents. For the final research project, students will use documents and data maps to present a case study of one enslaved person and how they expressed agency through their life and actions, taking into account the historical context in which they lived.
Students will learn to:
- make accurate observations and relevant inferences from primary source historical documents
- make accurate observations about geography and population using a GIS data map
- make inferences about how historical contexts of geography and population might have influenced historical events
- explain the difference between observations and inferences
- describe 3 phases of slavery: Capture into slavery, the slave trade, and life in slavery
- describe changes in US laws affecting enslaved people in the American colonies
- define agency, both for individuals and for groups, and give examples
- present a historical argument, supporting claims with evidence, relating an enslaved person's agency with the historical context in which they lived
- Discuss: What do we already know about slavery in America?
- Use the GIS map to make observations, inferences, and questions about slavery
- What was enslavement like? Observations and inferences from primary source documents
- Shared reading: Slave narratives
- HOMEWORK: Read slave narrative and complete Handout 1
- Discuss students' observations and inferences from Slave Narratives
- Jigsaw reading activity: the Jamestown Slave Laws
- Jigsaw groups: Compare Jamestown Slave Laws
- Students complete the Inference and Interpretation questions individually
- HOMEWORK: Read the Case of Denmark Vesey and take notes: How did Vesey live both inside and outside the laws of slavery?
- Check completion of the homework notes on Denmark Vesey
- Introduce the concept of Agency
- Discuss: Did enslaved people have agency?
- GIS map discussion: When and where did Vesey live and die?
- Observations and Inferences about Vesey's history
- Assign Case Study groups for research project
- HOMEWORK: Read Case Study Documents and begin filling in the Case Study Worksheet
Lesson 4: Case Study Investigations (Computer Lab)
- Review the assignment, using the Denmark Vesey case as an example
- Explain the criteria for an excellent Case Study Presentation
- Students work on their case study research in groups at computers
- HOMEWORK: Complete Case Study Worksheet and prepare for Presentations
- Review criteria and expectations for Case Study Presentations
- Each group presents their Case Study: Whole class or Jigsaw Groups presentations
- Discuss: What are the similarities and differences in the ways different enslaved people expressed their agency?
- Students organize their notes to study for Final Assessment
- Final Assessment (pdf): Comparing two cases of enslaved people's agency (an individual student assessment)
- Rubric (pdf) for grading Case Study Presentations (a group project assessment)
- The Slavery in America GIS map (click the "MAP" tab) with census data for 1790-1870
- A collection of historical documents (click the "DOCUMENTS" tab) including slave narratives, laws affecting slavery, and documents for completing the case studies of enslaved people's agency
- Teachers can download the complete set of Teacher
& Student Materials (also linked from the lesson plans):
- Slave Narratives 1-3 (pdf)
- Handout 1: Observations and Inferences from Slave Narratives (pdf)
- Teacher reference: List of examples (pdf) of observations and inferences from Slave Narrative 1
- Handout 2: Laws Regulating American Slavery (pdf)
- Jamestown Slave Laws (1 per student)
- Teacher reference: Handout on Agency (pdf)
- Case Study documents (pdf)
- Handout 3: Observations and Inferences from Denmark Vesey Case (pdf)
- Case Study Worksheet (pdf)
- Rubric (pdf) for Case Study Presentations
- Final Assessment (pdf)
Slavery in America Documents
A collection of three slave narratives that document the three phases of slavery: capture into slavery, the slave trade, and life in slavery. These narratives are used in Lesson 1.
off as many as they can seize."
Olaudah Equiano discusses his experience being captured into slavery.
- "Dread and
Olaudah Equiano talks about the experience about being traded as a slave.
- "The slave has no rights..."
Frederick Douglass discusses life in slavery in this excerpted 1846 speech.
For additional collections of slave narratives, click here.
This is a link to the laws from the Jamestown Colony used in Lesson 2.
Three excerpted laws discussing slavery in the Jamestown Colonies.
For a collection of slave law documents between 1619-1867, click here.
A collection of case studies documenting examples of slave agency in the Americas ranging from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. For a .pdf version of all the case studies, click here.
- Denmark Vesey
- Frederick Douglass
- Free Frank McWorter
- Gabriel Prosser
- Harriet Jacobs
- Harriet Tubman
- La Amistad
- Nat Turner
Additional resources for student research
Many organizations, government agencies, and websites have been dedicated to collecting and recording oral and narrative histories. Below are several websites that provide expansive resources for both teachers and students.
- Teaching with Documents: Primary documents and lesson plans for different periods of American history from the National Archives & Records Administration.
- History Matters from the American Social History Project, George Mason University. This is an excellent resource for primary source documents of all kinds, related to teaching US History.
- American Memory from the Library of Congress, which has tons of other resources as well.
- Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. This site has an excellent collection of documents.
- EDSITEment: Humanities on the Web from the National Endownment for the Humanities. Lesson plan and resource collections in all areas of the Humanities, including social studies.
- The Smithsonian Institution is a great resources for educators.