Slavery in America: Agency of enslaved people

Years: 1619 to 1870

Driving Questions

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 The perspectives of people who lived in slavery are reflected only rarely in historical documents.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:


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of free and enslaved people, and connect these observations with the perspectives of enslaved people reflected in historical documents.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  • make accurate observations and relevant inferences from primary source historical documents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

Lesson Plans

Lesson 1: What, When, and Where was American Slavery?

  • 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

Lesson 2: Slave Laws in Early America

  • 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?

Lesson 3: Agency of Enslaved People

  • 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

Lesson 5: Final 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)


    Slavery in America Documents

    Slave Narratives

    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.

    For additional collections of slave narratives, click here.

    Slave Laws

    This is a link to the laws from the Jamestown Colony used in Lesson 2.

    For a collection of slave law documents between 1619-1867, click here.

    Case Studies

    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.

    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.

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