Teaching Enslavement in American History

Lesson Plans and Primary Sources

by Chara Haeussler Bohan (Author) H. Robert Baker (Author) LaGarrett J. King (Author)
©2022 Textbook XVIII, 252 Pages


Teaching Enslavement in American History provides classroom teachers with the resources necessary to navigate one of the most difficult topics in any history course. This volume is the product of a collaboration between three university professors and a team of experienced middle and high school teachers. Its nine chapters include the context for topics like the middle passage, the Constitution’s position on enslavement, African cultural retention, and resistance to enslavement. The resources include 18 lesson plans and dozens of short primary and secondary sources modeled on document-based questions and the inquiry design model.
Real teaching requires courage, a deep understanding of the complexity of the subject matter, and skillful use of primary sources. Rather than teaching students what to think, Teaching Enslavement in American History pushes students to learn how to think: empirical argumentation, source evaluation, understanding of change-over-time, and analysis of historical context. The lessons in this book ask students to read, analyze, and contextualize a variety of primary sources, to identify the limitations of these sources and to articulate historical contradiction where it occurs. At the heart of this book is the belief that historical consciousness leads to societal change. Teaching about enslavement is not merely about teaching a curriculum, it is about molding citizens who will lead our democracy in its journey to become a more perfect union.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Slavery in Colonial America
  • IDM: Class and Race 19
  • DBQ: Tobacco vs. Rice
  • Chapter Two: The Middle Passage
  • IDM: Cultural Survival and the Slave Trade 43
  • DBQ: African Resistance and the Slave Trade
  • Chapter Three: African Cultural Retention
  • IDM: African Roots of American Music 71
  • DBQ: African Religions in America
  • Chapter Four: Slavery and the Constitution
  • IDM: The Morality of Compromise 94
  • DBQ: Slavery and the Constitution in the 19th Century
  • Chapter Five: Slavery in the Early Republic, 1790–1833
  • IDM: Capitalism and Slavery 118
  • DBQ: The Debate over Slavery, 1787–1833
  • Chapter Six: Enslavement and Resistance
  • IDM: “Effective” Resistance 142
  • DBQ: The Different Forms of Resistance
  • Chapter Seven: Abolitionism
  • IDM: The Use of Violence 169
  • DBQ: The Cult of Domesticity and Abolitionism
  • Chapter Eight: Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War, 1833–1860
  • IDM: Real Freedom 195
  • DBQ: Slavery and Politics in the 1850s
  • Chapter Nine: Civil War and Emancipation
  • IDM: Blueprint 222
  • DBQ: The Lives of the Formerly Enslaved
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

←xiv | xv→


Teaching Enslavement in American History is possible because of the contributions of countless individuals. Thanks to the Georgia State graduate students, Wade Morris, Asia Thomas, and Sonya Miller, working teachers all, who helped with this book and its lessons. Wade Morris deserves a special medal of honor for assisting with every leg of this journey during a nearly three-year period of time. Thanks also to the Georgia State University librarians, Morna Gerard, Denise George, and Laura Burtle, who always assisted with any question, no matter how obscure it might appear to be. Thanks also are extended to the series editor, Caroline Pryor, who was always timely with responses, and to Patty Mulrane, Dani Green, and Jacqueline Pavlovic at Peter Lang who never questioned why the process kept being extended (who knew in 2019 that America would face protests in 2020 that would return the issue of American race relations to the front pages of the media?). A special shout-out to poet, actor, and author David Mills, who donated his creative energy to writing a poem for the book. David Mills is deeply knowledgeable of African American history and his creative writings are inspired by that history. He has held several fellowships to study enslavement in Massachusetts and New York, including one with the American Antiquarian Society. Peer reviewers and scholars have helped us to enrich our historical perspective, especially Erik B. Alexander, Ras Michael Brown and Jeffrey R. Young. Thanks to S.G. Grant for reviewing the Inquiry Design Model lessons and to the four teachers at the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education who reviewed lessons and provided helpful feedback: Jania Hoover, Vicki Shields, Demetrius Hobson, and Valencia Abbott.

The idea for a book was born out of two National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes for Teachers. The brilliant two groups who totaled 50 teachers from across the United States helped us realize the need to improve the teaching of enslavement in the US. In particular, special thanks is due to Rhonda Webb who served as NEH grant manager and who organized the 2018 NEH Courting Liberty All-Stars, and a special shout-out to teachers Melissa Cohen, William Frazier, Mary Reid Munford, Matthew Shiloh, Jessica Piper, and Donell Osborne-Ziegler, who continue to inspire America’s youth with deep knowledge of its history.←xv | xvi→

Finally, Chara Bohan would like to acknowledge her spouse, Tom Bohan, who read every word that we wrote, and her children, Caleb and Chloe. One late Friday night, when Chara was still sitting at the computer, her daughter Chloe remarked that she was glad she didn’t have Chara’s job. On the contrary, I (Chara) tell anyone who will listen that it is a special privilege to be paid to continue to learn.

←xvi | 1→


We began writing this book in 2019 on the 400-year anniversary of American slavery. While African slavery in North America can be traced to 1526 through Spanish occupation of the southeast coast, the year 1619 holds special significance for British North America. When the first 20 or so abducted Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo arrived on the White Lion privateer ship, they landed on what would eventually become Point Comfort, Virginia. They were the first Black inhabitants of the colonies that would become the United States. But whether we date their arrival in 1526 or 1619, Africans were here from the beginning. Blackness is part of our country’s history.1

To memorialize 400 years, 2019 was filled with various think pieces, educational events, and scholarly publications honoring Black history and reflecting on how the institution of slavery shapes both past and present. The United States Congress authorized a 15-member commission under the 400 Years of African American History Commission Act to help plan, carry out programs and activities, and distribute grants to organizations to educate about the history of enslavement throughout the United States. The New York Times Magazine published in August 2019 the ambitious (and controversial) The 1619 Project conceived and directed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project won a Pulitzer Prize, has been published as a book, and developed into a curriculum for schoolteachers. The 1619 Project has also attracted a tempestuous backlash, including denunciation by (the now former) President Trump in a speech delivered on Constitution Day, 2020, at the Museum in the National Archives.2

Black history certainly has come a long way from being ignored in school history curriculum. This goes deeper than headline-grabbing politics. A study conducted by Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano has shown that the pantheon of American heroes has changed and famous Americans such as Betsy Ross and Paul Revere have been superseded by Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Granted, the study did not specify what the students actually knew about these historical figures. If contemporary research is a guide, then many students have ←1 | 2→likely decontextualized and whitewashed these famous American icons. Nonetheless, they are there. Pioneering education activists and scholars who for so long advocated for more Black representation in the history curriculum have, somewhat, succeeded. National awareness, perhaps, has been raised. As we complete this final draft of the book in the spring of 2022, the historic and contemporary effects of racialized violence have reverberated for nearly two years following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Protests rocked American cities in the summer of 2020. Granted, protests over racial injustice in America are nothing new. What is new is that a larger percentage of Americans recognize that protestors were motivated by longstanding concerns about the treatment of Black people in the United States. These same people are calling for more Black history in schools to help them understand the histories behind policing, oppression, and resistance.3

Yet, despite significant public attention, all is not well with the teaching of Black history.4 Saturday Night Live, in 2014, rather brilliantly captured the problem. Set in an all-too-familiar classroom, the skit (titled “Twenty-Eight Reasons to Hug a Black Guy”) begins with a white female teacher providing space for her three Black students (her ONLY Black students) to present about Black history in front of class because, of course, it is Black History Month (hence the title “28 Reasons,” one for each day in the year’s shortest month). The Black students, played by Jay Pharoah, Kenan Thompson, and Sasheer Zamata, begin their presentation by playing a happy and catchy tune with Jay Pharoah intoning the names of—who else—Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Harriet Tubman. Then Pharoah begins to rap about the absence of Black history in schools and how he has something important to say because Black history month is the only time dedicated for this space. Still upbeat, Pharaoh promises to deliver “28 Reasons to Hug a Black Guy Today.” Number 1, says Pharaoh, “is that Black people deserve a chance.” Numbers 2–28? The music screeches to a halt, Pharaoh and his co-presenters drop their smiles, and they deadpan the answer: “Slavery.”5

“Twenty-eight Reasons to Hug a Black Guy” is a funny skit, a masterpiece of comedic timing and transgressive genre-mixing (just listen to the catchy R&B chorus). But it is also a poignant statement about how society and schools treat Black history. After all, Black history isn’t an uncomfortable topic per se. It wasn’t Pharoah’s invocation of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Harriet Tubman (the very people whom Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano identified as the most famous Americans in history according to high school students) that caused the white students to squirm. It was slavery. The skit abruptly switches gears again when Kenan Thompson assures the white students that “we ain’t trying to brawl, you know we ain’t mad at all y’all.” Thompson asks the students to raise their hands if they’re “down with the cause.” A class full of hands goes up. Then Thompson says to keep your hands up “if your ancestors owned us.” Again, the music screeches to a halt, white faces turn uncomfortable, and hands slowly start to go down. This confrontational form of Black history and historical introspection prompts a white male student to stand up and offer to play “devil’s advocate.” He is quickly silenced by the teacher. At the end of the presentation, the Black students asked the white students for some call and response: “When I say slavery, you say sorry.” The Black students say “Slavery.” The white students uncomfortably reply “sorry” and the presentation ends.

To understand the genius of “28 Reasons” is to understand how slavery is approached in the official K-12 history curriculum. Slavery is a difficult topic, a hard topic, and many state standards, textbooks and teachers avoid it by turning to feel-good stories about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the Emancipation Proclamation. To the degree that slavery is addressed, it is subsumed within a progressive narrative of American history, as a “problem” ←2 | 3→that was solved long ago. More disturbingly, the institution of slavery is often disassociated from the concept of white supremacy. (Please see explanation of white supremacy and other terms at the end of the introduction in the note on terminology.) Taken together, this kind of pedagogy minimizes the institution of slavery, silences the voices of enslaved people, and ignores how slavery and white supremacy shaped economic, political, social and cultural patterns that far outlasted slavery’s violent demise.6

These are hard topics, and they need to be taught. They must, however, be taught with care. Bad pedagogy can, independent of curriculum, undermine students’ full comprehension of the chattel slavery system. Studies have confirmed that Black students can have contentious relationships with teachers’ instructional approaches regarding slavery and Black history. They feel that many teachers are unwilling, unknowledgeable, or not empathic enough to teach the subject critically.7 Black students have noticed that slavery has only focused on “how their people were oppressed” and that “slavery was proof that Black people were inferior… and would have remained as slaves forever if not for sympathetic whites who secured our freedom.”8 Consequently, Black students felt that their teachers would oftentimes ignore or silence their viewpoints. Terri Epstein related the story of Black students who tried to interject when their white teacher taught that “white slave owners beat or whipped blacks who disobeyed orders,” but when they attempted to provide additional anecdotes of slave amputation, sexual assault, and the aftermath of slavery after emancipation, the teacher ignored their suggestions.9

Scrutinizing pedagogy is important, but we are also keenly aware of the pressure under which teachers practice their craft. Teachers today are caught between the anvil of American exceptionalism and the hammer of social justice. American exceptionalism is the notion that America’s embrace of liberty and equality is exceptional in world history and that our national story (especially as it is taught in schools) must celebrate this narrative. Certainly, the principles of freedom and equality are currents in American history, and teachers should not ignore them or treat them as empty rhetoric. We believe that teachers should teach a civic-minded, patriotic history that faces the full complexity of the past. But to teach civic-minded history is to confront fully and honestly the institution of slavery and to recognize how slavery created and sustained many anti-Black political institutions and societal structures that survived slavery’s destruction and continue into the present. To put this another way, teaching civic-minded, patriotic history means understanding how American liberty has been shaped by injustice and oppression. The American experiment in self-government will only work if students understand that their democracy is and always was a struggle between contending interests and values. Feel-good narratives do not instill patriotism. They invite complacency.10

Teaching the history of slavery is sometimes seen as an attack on American civic values, and can arouse the anger of parents, administrators, and school boards. At the time of the writing of this book, several state legislatures considered bills that would ban the teaching of concepts associated with The 1619 Project and, more vaguely, “critical race theory.”11 Teachers who want to tell the truth about slavery and its legacy can provoke powerful political constituencies, both local and national, into destructive action. In the face of such trenchant political reaction, teachers should keep calm and become subject-matter experts. They must study slavery’s centrality to American political and constitutional history. They must learn the rich heritage of the African diaspora. They must understand the role of Black people in bringing about the demise of slavery. They must be ready to answer their critics by being able to demonstrate just how deeply rooted slavery was in American politics ←3 | 4→and society, how difficult it was for peoples of the past to confront it, and how extricating it root and branch could not be accomplished in a day, a year, or even a generation.

Facing the wrath of school boards is one thing, but the hammer of social justice is just as real to teachers, who often live in fear of being called-out for insensitivity to racial issues. Sensationalized news stories about horrible assignments related to slavery certainly shock our sensibilities: teachers assigning slavery math problems; students performing a play in black face; Civil War dress up day where students reenact enslaved person, slaveholder, and KKK members. Racist pedagogy should, of course, be confronted and condemned. But what of a lesson misinterpreted or misrepresented? Well-intentioned, responsible teachers reasonably fear that being called out might lead to vilification, reprimand, or job loss. After all, is it not much safer to stick to the saccharine narrative, toe the official line, and avoid offence? This subtly pervades the SNL skit “28 Reasons” in the teacher, played by Kate McKinnon, who dances rather comically during the students’ song, silences any discussion of slavery, and ends by reassuring her three Black students; “very cool. Very sorry, and very cool.” As if wokeness could substitute for real teaching.

Real teaching requires courage, a deep understanding of the complexity of the subject matter, and skillful use of primary sources. Rather than teaching students what to think, we want students to learn how to think. We want to cultivate historical thinking skills: empirically based argumentation; source evaluation; understanding of change-over-time; and analysis of historical context. The lessons in this book ask students to read, analyze, and contextualize a variety of primary sources, to identify the limitations of these sources and to articulate historical contradiction where it occurs. We want students not just to study history but to do history, to become historians who grapple with the layers of historical complexity, ambiguity, and paradox within American history. To ignore the complexity of teaching enslavement stifles our growth as a nation and does not help us achieve our democratic mission. We need to be uncomfortable to grow. We need to learn Black history. We need to use our historical thinking skills to enact societal change. Teaching about enslavement is not merely about teaching a curriculum, it is about molding citizens who will lead our democracy.

How to Use this Book

This book covers the history of enslavement in every aspect of American history in nine roughly chronological chapters. Each chapter starts with the history, then includes a section connecting the history to the pedagogy that explains the rationale for the subsequent lesson plans and historical documents. Two lesson plans follow, a C3 Inquiry Design Model (IDM) and a Document-Based Question (DBQ), and supporting historical documents. The IDM model includes four dimensions, (1) framing a compelling question to focus the lesson, (2) mobilizing disciplinary knowledge by providing primary source materials, (3) asking students to make and evaluate claims, and (4) having students express and apply those claims.12 We have provided lessons that include questions, primary sources, and activities for each chapter. The DBQ lesson follows the format of the writing prompt for the Advance Placement in American History examination. These lessons serve as exemplars, but there are endless possibilities. We know that teachers may not have time to teach all nine subtopics related to American slavery, but they can select from those that are relevant to the content standards in their particular curriculum.←4 | 5→

We structured the book around national and state standards with respect to teaching enslavement in American History for the middle and secondary grades. The largest states tend to dominate the textbook market (as well as set the bar for other states), thus New York, California, and Texas’s standards in US History were examined, as well as Georgia’s standards; thus giving an appropriate balance of red and blue states. The variance of content standards at the state levels are striking, but we have designed the book to speak to them all. The Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) standards of the College Board, which were revised in 2015 after much controversy, provide some content standards as guidance for teachers and students preparing for the APUSH examination, and the authors have taken this into account when selecting historical and pedagogical materials.13


XVIII, 252
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
slavery teaching United States history Civil War race lesson plans primary sources Chara Bohan H. Robert Baker LaGarrett J. King Wade Morris Teaching Enslavement in American History
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XVIII, 252 pp., 9 b/w ill., 9 tables.

Biographical notes

Chara Haeussler Bohan (Author) H. Robert Baker (Author) LaGarrett J. King (Author)

Chara Haeussler Bohan is an education professor at Georgia State University, specializing in educational history, curriculum, race, and gender. She has published more than 100 articles and books and has most recently focused on the perpetuation of Lost Cause mythology in northern and southern schools. H. Robert Baker is a history professor at Georgia State University, specializing in law and the Constitution. He has written two books on the Supreme Court and slavery, and dozens of articles on topics ranging from slavery and law to American literature. His current research examines freedom suits and the practice of kidnapping free Black people into slavery. LaGarrett J. King is an education professor at the University at Buffalo, specializing in social studies curriculum, with a focus on how Black history is interpreted and taught in schools and society. He has published more than 60 articles and book chapters, and also researches critical theories of race, teacher education, and curriculum history. Wade Morris taught high school history for fifteen years in Virginia, Georgia, and Beirut, Lebanon. He currently serves as a Dean’s Fellow at Georgia State University’s College of Education and Human Development, where he researches the 19th century roots of American education.


Title: Teaching Enslavement in American History
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272 pages