Slavery in the United States


The following article contains excerpts from the new edition of our book on using literature in the US history curriculum, In Times Past.


Find out about as many kinds and conditions of slavery from any period or place in history as you can: house slaves, field slaves, living conditions, abuse, paternalistic treatment, humane treatment, and opportunities for freedom.

Find out about as many different near-slavery conditions from any time period as you can: bondservants, sharecroppers, sub-minimum wageworkers, servants, migrant workers, apprentices, dead-end jobs, and some homemakers.

Find commonalties and differences among the workers in the two activities above. Chart numbers, races, lengths of service, conditions of release, health conditions, education, prospects for the future, and family life for each job or condition. Create two characters from the first two activities. Have them meet, plan an escape, discuss who is better off, work on the same enterprise, move forward or backward in time, or go to another country.

Write diaries and role-play any of the characters above.

Find the arguments used to defend each type of slavery. Appoint one class member to assume the role of a person who believed or believes these arguments to be logical and just. Attack and defend his/her position.

Go back to the first two research topics and make cause-and-effect charts for each, giving economic and historic reasons for those conditions.

Find the names of well-known historic figures, especially the US presidents, who were slave owners. Make a bulletin board display with portraits of these people. Under each portrait, list the person's accomplishments as well as his/her role in slavery.

Research the role of the North in slavery. For instance, the cotton mills of the North needed the cotton produced by the slaves in the South. Compare that to current American use of goods made in other countries by cheaper labor.

Make a chart with the following headings:

  • What the Slaves Wanted
  • What the Slave Owners Wanted
  • What the Northern Factories and Consumers Wanted
  • What the Abolitionists Wanted
Fill in the chart with as much information as you can find.

Using the information on the above chart, decide how the Civil War and the Emancipation addressed each desire or need.
Brainstorm other solutions that might have met as many or more of those needs expressed in the chart. Were any of these solutions tried before the Civil War? What was the result?
Brainstorm possible solutions for people who felt they had no choice but to keep slaves.

Contrast the role of a slave owner with his/her slaves and the role of a modern day parent with his/her children. Are there similarities? What are the chief differences?

Look at the time preceding the Civil War and brainstorm other avenues that could have been used to bring an end to slavery.

Imagine yourself as a slave on a Southern plantation. You have received word that you are now free. Most likely you have no money and can neither read nor write. What are your options? Where can you go? The country is in the middle of the war. Most of the plantations near you have been robbed and ruined. Role-play getting together with some of the other slaves to discuss what you will do tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year.

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Locate the Big Dipper. Find out how and why it was used by escaping slaves. Sing, "Follow the Drinking Gourd."

Sing some of the songs from slave times. What role did music play in the lives of the slaves?

Find out about the Quakers who played important roles in the Underground Railroad, as did others. Find out about the origin of the Quaker religion and its beliefs. Because Quakers are often pacifists they must have opposed the Civil War that was bringing about an end to slavery. How might they have coped with this conflict of beliefs?

Find out how much risk the people in the Underground Railroad were taking. Would you be willing to participate? How does the risk compare to that taken by people helping Jews escape Nazi Germany? How does it compare to people helping illegal aliens now?

If you had to hide people in your house, where would you hide them? Whom would you trust with the information? How long do you think you could keep them hidden? Who would be most likely to discover your secret? Would they help or hurt?

Find out about slavery in the world today. Write to the United Nations Human Rights Department and to Amnesty International to find out which countries allow slavery.

Mauritania is one country in which slavery is still prevalent. Write to our embassy there to find out what the United States and the government of Mauritania are doing about it.

Literary Activities:

After reading several books about escaping slaves, plot on a map the routes they took to safety. Find their eventual destinations. Find alternate routes and destinations?

Using Julius Lester's book, To Be a Slave, listed below, find a quote that could have been used by one of the characters from a novel you read.

Make a storyboard for a sequel to any of the books you read about slaves. A storyboard is a linear flow chart that outlines the story and allows room for adding details. Writers of television dramas and books often start with a storyboard.

Contrast the living conditions of the various slaves in the literature.

Jump ahead a generation and make a storyboard about the lives of the children of one of the characters in a book you read.

There are many picture books listed below that concern slavery. Notice the role the illustrations play in telling various stories. How would it change the mood of the story if the illustrations were done differently? Which illustrations do you find most powerful. Can you figure out why?

Several of the novels in the list below are ghost stories. How does that genre lend itself so well to historical fiction? Which of them are spookiest? How does the author do that?

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Books about Slavery

Picture Books

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* * * Hopkinson, Deborah. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Illustrated by James Ransome. (Order Info.)
Clara is taught to sew by another slave on the plantation so that she can work in the big house instead of in the fields. Soon afterward, Clara learns about maps and the Underground Railroad. She constructs a quilt with a map in the pattern so that she'll remember the way to the Ohio River. Other slaves, realizing what Clara is doing, add details to the map. When Clara is ready, she leaves the quilt behind for others to use. She knows the way now.

* * Turner, Ann. Nettie's Trip South. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. (Order Info.)
Through a series of letters, a girl from the North communicates her glimpses of slavery in the American South.


* * Grades 3 and up
Blos, Joan. A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832. (Order Info.)
Written as the diary of an eleven-year-old girl, this book makes personal the mid-nineteenth century life in small town New Hampshire. We witness the changes in society and in the life of Catherine as she encounters and aids a runaway slave, mourns the death of her best friend, and adjusts to a new stepmother.

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* * Grades 5 and up
Collier, James and Christopher. Jump Ship to Freedom. (Order Info.)
This is the second book in the Arabus family saga. Daniel Arabus needs money to buy his freedom and that of his mother from the household of Captain Ivers. To do so, he must recover the money his father earned during the Revolution. After he steals the money, he runs to Philadelphia where the Continental Congress is trying to decide what to do about slavery.

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* * Grades 4 and up
Fox, Paula. The Slave Dancer. (Order Info.)
Thirteen-year-old Jessie, a white boy, is kidnapped because of his ability to play the fife. On board ship he becomes an unwilling participant in the slave trade. Since the slaves must be exercised, Jessie is to play music and they must dance. The ship is wrecked and the only two survivors are Jessie and a young slave.

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* * * Grades 3 and up
Hamilton, Virginia. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. (Order Info.)
This superb collection of twenty-four African American folk tales is perfect for reading aloud, for recommendation to less able readers, and for just plain wonderful reading. Many of these tales are slave tales about freedom. More Info on Hamilton.

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* * * Grades 4 and up
Paterson, Katherine. Jip: His Story. (Order Info. Jip lives at the poor farm, practically running part of it. He supposedly fell from a wagon that was careening through town and, when no one claimed him, he was sent to the poor farm. His story is revealed slowly as Jip befriends a lunatic caged at the farm.

* * Grades 7 and up
Paulsen, Gary. Sarny: a Life Remembered. (Order Info.)
Gary Paulsen picks up the story of Sarny from Nightjohn and carries her through to adulthood at the end of the Civil war. She is freed but her children have been sold away. For most of the book she searches for them. Paulsen leaves little doubt that the woman who helps Sarny is a prostitute.

* * Grades 6 and up
Rinaldi, Ann. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons. (Order Info.)
This is the fictionalized biography of poet Phillis Wheatley, the slave who became America's first African American poet. Captured in Africa, enduring the middle passage on a slave ship, she was sold to the Wheatley family of Boston. The family taught her to read and admired her poetry and introduced her to many of the personages of the time: John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, among others.

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* * * Grades 7 and up
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Order Info.)
This classic is much more than the story about the slave Jim. Its literary standing makes this one book worth a whole year of study.

* * Grades 4 and up
Wait, Lea. Seaward Born. (Order Info.)
In 1805, a thirteen year-old slave named Michael escapes from Charleston aboard a ship bound for Boston. As an escaped slave, he is not free even there and must go further north for freedom. The events in the north make this book a particularly useful addition to the literature.


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* * Grades 3 and up
Bial, Raymond. The Underground Railroad. (Order Info.)
Full color photographs of the relics of slavery in America illustrate this brief explanation of the institution of slavery and those who suffered under it.

* * * Grades 5 and up
Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: a Photobiography. (Order Info.)
Freedman received the Newbery Award for this masterful biography. Amply illustrated, the narrative moves smoothly. The complicated nature of the witty storyteller and astute politician is sometimes overwhelmed by melancholy and was as puzzling to his contemporaries as it is to students of today.

* * Grades 4 and up
Hamilton, Virginia. Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. (Order Info.)
This magnificent volume uses documented sources to take a look at slavery from the early1600s using personal tales as well as overviews. The Dillons illustrations are wonderful.

* * Grades 4 and up
Lester, Julius. From Slave Ship to Freedom Road. Illustrated by Rod Brown. (Order Info.)
Lester takes viewers on an intense journey through the horrors of slavery in these dramatic 40 pages.

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* * * Grades 5 and up
Lester, Julius. To Be a Slave. (Order Info.)
Using writings and interviews of the slaves as primary sources, the author chronicles their capture, transport, and enslavement in the South during and after the Civil War. The book presents a terrible and intimate portrait of slavery. It's a fascinating book and a source of rare primary material about slavery. Because it includes names, the book is a rich source for role-playing activities and serves as an example of the differences between primary and secondary sources.

cover art * * Grades 3 and up
Rockwell, Anne. Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth. Illustrated by Christie, R. Gregory. (Order Info.) Picture Book, Nonfiction. 36 pages.
The text is dramatic and gives information about slavery in the northern United States in the early 1800's because, of course, that's where the slave Isabelle, later to rename herself as Sojourner Truth lived her long and inspiring life. This is a picture book that you can use as low as third grade but don't let your high school students miss it either. Read More.


Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site