Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
History 420

Teaching slavery and its consequences

Slavery photo

Introduction: While this entire unit on teaching the Constitution has focused on how and why we MUST teach exciting and relevant lessons about the controversies, debates and compromises surrounding the adoption and implementation of the Constitution, we cannot leave the topic without discussing in more detail the topic that confounded the Founding Fathers - slavery - as well as the racial repercussions that continue to confound us today. To get an idea of the full geographical ramifications of slavery from 1790 to 1860, let's take a look at this website - http://www.radicalcartography.net/index.html?slavery.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To debate the relevance of slavery to the 21st century.
  2. To learn how to conduct a teach in (about slavery or any other topic).
  3. To provide background content for teaching about American slavery.

Goal #1: To debate the relevance of slavery to the 21st century

Methods Discussion. Operating with any relevant KNOWLEDGE you have about slavery - including anything you have previously learned in this class - let's Take Sides. Take out a piece of paper and write your name and "Take Sides" at the top. Then, do the following:

Before we begin to examine more fully the question of whether or not understanding the history of slavery is relevant to our lives in the 21st century, let's watch two excerpts from the PBS show, African American Lives in which Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examined the roots of many famous African Americans.

And finally, let's consider the following quotes from two famous American historians:

photo of Eric Foner"Can this be a society of equality between people of different backgrounds and different colors, different races? That question is still not really answered. As long as that question still remains to agitate our country, as long as there are people who feel aggrieved because they are the descendants of slaves and they have not fully shared in the blessings of liberty that our Constitution promises to everybody, the history of slavery will be relevant to the present society. Not because we're going to relive that history, but because if we don't understand it, we will never really know how the country got to the condition it is in now ... in the 21st century." Eric Foner, Historian

photo of James Horton"The problem of race in America ... is not the problem of slavery. If it had been the problem of slavery, it'd have been over in 1865. But as a nation that saw itself as a Christian nation, as a nation that saw itself built on the principles of freedom, we had to tell ourselves that there was something about the slave that justified slavery. It is that justification of slavery that we are still trying to deal with, more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery." James Horton, Historian



  1. How do the two excerpts with Don Cheadle and Chris Rock as well as these two quotes demonstrate the contemporary relevance of slavery? Or do they?
  2. Did either the videos or excerpts change the side you took? How and why?
  3. What other types of compelling information and evidence would you need to convince you that understanding slavery is important to understanding the poliical, social, and economic problems in the 21st Century USA?

So, you have all taken some time to think about how and why - or if - understanding slavery is relevant to our lives - and our students' lives today. But there is an even more compelling and argument to consider - the fact that there are more slaves in the world today than there were at the beginning of the American Civil War. Then tell your students that you are going to prove your statement.

Goal #2: To learn how to conduct a teach-in about slavery or any other topic

Methods Discussion: A wonderful way to decrease a heavy reading load is to put together a Teach In. If you have five chapters, articles, primary, or secondary documents that you want your students to understand, but you do not want them to read all five, this presents a great opportunity for a teach in. So what might a teach in about slavery look like?

Lets say you have 30 students in your class and you are using the following five documents. (Note that the two documents with asterisks ** will require abridgement.)

Then, do the following:

  1. Assign the documents to read accordingly: 6 students will read the first document; 6 students will read the second document; 6 students will read the third document; 6 students will read the fourth document; and 6 students will read the fifth document.
  2. Create 4-5 questions for each document. One of the questions MUST be biographical so that each students gets an understanding of the person who wrote the document. The other questions should be focused on the experiences of slavery and of the particular slave writer.
  3. Make sure that each student in the class receives a document and the questions that accompany it.
  4. Give students one class period to read their article in class and write their answers.
  5. On the next day, put your students into 6 groups of 5 students each, making sure that each group has a student who has read each of the five documents.
  6. Once in their groups, have students spend 30 minutes teaching each other their particular document from the answers to their questions. Each should begin their presentation with a brief biography of the slave.
  7. Once they have taught each other about their document, have them spend 10 minutes discussing how the documents 2-5 things that were similar in each document and what they collectively taught them about slavery.
  8. Come back together as a class and have a student from each group explain what they discussed and learned.

Goal #3: To provide background content for teaching about American slavery