Photograph of Sojourner Truth
Credit: Courtesy of The American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.
About one-third of Patriot soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill were African Americans (according to The Battle of Bunker Hill on the EDSITEment resource American Memory). Census data also reveal that there were slaves and free Blacks living in the North in 1790 and later years. What were the experiences of African-American individuals in the North in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War?
In this lesson, students will meet some of those African Americans and practice the techniques authors use to transform information about individuals into readable biographies.
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson African-American Communities in the North Before the Civil War.
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.
… Dressed as they were in heavy cloaks, their hats pulled low against the wind, they were barely distinguishable even from each other, except that the older, stouter of the two did most of the talking.
McCullough begins the book "in medias res," in the middle of a sequence of events, a familiar literary device. He will return to earlier events later, a technique reminiscent of a flashback. McCullough uses suspense in not immediately revealing the names of the two men. He uses description to add authenticity to the moment. But how did McCullough know the quality of the light on that particular day? Through the writing of one of the participants? Through his own experience of a New England winter? How did he know what was in the mind of the riders ("mindful of the horses")? Through the writing of one of the participants? Through a logical assumption? How did McCullough know they had their "hats pulled low against the wind"? Would one of the participants have mentioned such a fact in an account of that ride? It doesn't matter to the reader because the likelihood is great that they would have had their hats pulled down. The inclusion of the detail of the hats adds to the authenticity of the account while doing nothing to lessen the accuracy of the work.
This lesson increases student awareness of the role of literary techniques and historical accuracy in biography and offers students the opportunity to deal with both issues in practice.
[these] miniature portraits used as calling cards, were extremely popular during the American Civil War. These photographic calling cards, approximately 21/2 x 4 inches in size, had been invented in France in the early 1850s, and their popularity quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually to the United States, where the corollary development of the photograph album spurred a collecting craze in the 1860s that became known as Cartomania. In addition to assembling albums of family photographs, the public sought to collect images of celebrities…
It was common practice during the war to acquire such portraits through gift or purchase …
This card was created around 1864, before the end of the Civil War.
Have students list their observations about the card. If desired, use the Photo Analysis Worksheet on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom. Then, prompt discussion about the card based on these observations. Does it seem that this card was sold or given away? (One possible hint is the caption, "I sell the shadow to support the substance." Sojourner did support herself, in part, through the sale of her photographs.) If the card was sold, that means people wanted it enough to pay for it. What does that imply about the subject? The subject is seen sewing. If she had been walking down the road with a knapsack or in a field holding a tool, how would that change one's impression of the subject?
Now reveal the identity of Sojourner Truth and share with the class a brief account of her life, such as the Biography of Sojourner Truth available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. What an eventful life! Born a slave in New York after the American Revolution, Isabella, as she was originally known, eventually became an important figure in America. It's not surprising that people like to read about her life. But how does an author make such an account lively?
The class is going to compare the three brief accounts, below, of an event in Sojourner's life to see how authors employ specific literary elements. Tell students that they will eventually use the same techniques to write about an event in the life of an African American who lived between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Make a list of the techniques your class notices.
As “property” of several slave owners, when she was ten years old, Isabella was sold for $100 and some sheep.Why such a brief account of this significant event? (The purpose of this piece of writing is to summarize an entire life in a few paragraphs. It can only provide the basic facts, and little else.)
A slave auction is a terrible affair to its victims, and its incidents and consequences are graven on their hearts as with a pen of burning steel.What is added here? The thoughts and feelings of the subject are revealed-the consequences of slave auctions "are graven on their hearts." Sojourner's memory of the event is not clear in that she has “an impression.” Some additional detail is provided, such as the name of the farmer. Sojourner told her story to Olive Gilbert in hopes of making money. It is difficult to know with certainty how Gilbert may have added to or changed the narrative, either intentionally or through error. Though this version adds more than the very basic facts, Sojourner may have had an interest in finishing the project quickly. On the other hand, Gilbert had the advantage of having the speaker present as the story was related. When a story is told aloud, some information is conveyed by the facial expression. An author has to supply all the information with words only. The ability to review the material and make changes allows writers to shape their words exactly as they want.
At this memorable time, Isabella was struck off, for the sum of one hundred dollars, to one John Nealy, of Ulster County, New York; and she has an impression that in this sale she was connected with a lot of sheep. She was now nine years of age, and her trials in life may be dated from this period.
Strangers stared while the auctioneer poked and pointed at the girl with the stick-showing how tall and strong she was. He promised that since she was only about nine years old and already so tall, she'd soon be able to do the work of any man …
Tall, and strong as she was, no one bid for the slave girl called Isabella at that auction in Kingston, New York, in 1806. The sun settled low in the sky and still she wasn't sold. Finally the auctioneer offered to throw in a flock of sheep if someone would just buy the girl so he could call it a day and go home for supper.
Then a farmer did.
This account is told more like a story. How does it differ from the others as history? What details are likely to have come from the imagination of the author? What elements are confirmed by Gilbert's account? How does Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth differ from the others as a piece of literature? The author uses images; she appeals to the reader's senses. For example, we see the expression on the faces of those observing the auction. We get an impression through implied speech of what the auctioneer said (“He promised that …”). We can almost feel the auctioneer's stick poking us. The short sentence set aside in its own paragraph emphasizes the dramatic end of this episode. On the basis of this passage, would students term Only Passing Through as biography or historical fiction? How do students distinguish between the two (historical fiction allows more embellishment by the author, but accuracy is still expected)?
Using the list of writing techniques that you developed as a class in the last activity (i.e., using images to appeal to the senses; supplying a character's thoughts and/or emotions; structuring the piece with a beginning, middle, and end; and so on), the class will now work together to create an “excerpt” about Sojourner Truth.
Begin by reviewing once again Sojourner Truth's carte de visite on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. Remind students that images such as this one can help the writer provide images for the reader. For example, what clothing in the photograph might be typical of Sojourner (the cap and glasses)? Challenge students to include some physical description of Sojourner in the passage.
Now review the following description of Sojourner's visit to the aged Mr. Dumont—her third, and last, master—who purchased Isabella from John Nealy when she was about 13 (available through the Narrative of Sojourner Truth on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia):
Sojourner … found him, still living, though advanced in age, and reduced in property, (as he had been for a number of years,) but greatly enlightened on the subject of slavery. He said he could then see that 'slavery was the wickedest thing in the world, the greatest curse the earth had ever felt-that it was then very clear to his mind that it was so, though, while he was a slaveholder himself, he did not see it so, and thought it was as right as holding any other property.' Sojourner remarked to him, that it might be the same with those who are now slaveholders. 'O, no,' replied he, with warmth, 'it cannot be. For, now, the sin of slavery is so clearly written out, and so much talked against,-(why, the whole world cries out against it!)-that if any one says he don't know, and has not heard, he must, I think, be a liar …
Students will now create the excerpt about Sojourner, based on this episode. First, brainstorm as a class about what pictures an author could "paint" to make the scene come to life (the aged slave master, the decrepit property)? What was Sojourner probably thinking as she approached the property? When she first saw her former master? As she was talking to Mr. Dumont? We have the benefit of Mr. Dumont's words as Sojourner remembered them. Use quotation marks to turn some of his words into direct quotes. Ask a volunteer to suggest an opening sentence or even start the class with, “As Sojourner walked down the road to Mr. Dumont's house, she …”
When the class has finished the excerpt, evaluate it. Would they categorize what they've come up with as biography or historical fiction?
Working individually or in small groups, students now will be given some primary and secondary information on an African American who lived between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War. Based on a specific event in that person's life, students will compose an “excerpt” from a biography of the individual or historical fiction with the individual as a character. One or more members of each group may serve as illustrators. In addition, each group should prepare a very brief summary of the individual's life based on one or more secondary accounts.
I gave the King a testament and let him know by the interpreter the useful records contained in these books, and the great fountain they pointed to.could become:
Handing the King a Bible, I told him through the interpreter, “This book contains many useful records, stories and guidance that will point you to a great fountain of knowledge and love.”
A party of wild young men, with no motive but that of entertaining themselves by annoying and injuring the feelings of others, had assembled at the meeting, hooting and yelling, and in various ways interrupting the services, and causing much disturbance. Those who had the charge of the meeting, having tried their persuasive powers in vain, grew impatient and tried threatening.
The young men, considering themselves insulted, collected their friends, to the number of a hundred or more, dispersed themselves through the grounds, making the most frightful noises, and threatening to fire the tents …
Sojourner left the tent alone and unaided, and walking some thirty rods to the top of a small rise of ground, commenced to sing, in her most fervid manner, with all the strength of her most powerful voice …
As she commenced to sing, the young men made a rush towards her, and she was immediately encircled by … rioters, many of them armed with sticks or clubs as their weapons of defense, if not of attack. As the circle narrowed around her, she ceased singing, and after a short pause, inquired, in a gentle but firm tone, 'Why do you come about me with clubs and sticks? I am not doing harm to any one.' 'We aren't a going to hurt you, old woman; we came to hear you sing,' cried many voices, simultaneously. 'Sing to us, old woman,' cries one. 'Talk to us, old woman,' says another. 'Pray, old woman,' says a third. 'Tell us your experience,' says a fourth. 'You stand and smoke so near me, I cannot sing or talk,' she answered.
'Stand back,' said several authoritative voices, with not the most gentle or courteous accompaniments, raising their rude weapons in the air. The crowd suddenly gave back, the circle became larger, as many voices again called for singing, talking, or praying, backed by assurances that no one should be allowed to hurt her-the speakers declaring with an oath, that they would 'knock down' any person who should offer her the least indignity.
During the winter of 1773, the indications of disease had so much increased, that her physician advised a sea voyage. This was earnestly seconded by her friends; and a son of Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley being about to make a voyage to England to arrange a mercantile correspondence, it was settled that Phillis should accompany him, and she accordingly embarked in the summer of the same year.
She was at this time but nineteen years old, and was at the highest point of her short and brilliant career. It is with emotions of sorrow that we approach the strange and splendid scenes which were now about to open upon her--to be succeeded by grief and desolation.
Phillis was well received in England, and was presented to Lady Huntingdon, Lord Dartmouth, Mr. Thornton and many other individuals of distinction; but, says our informant, 'not all the attention she received, nor all the honors that were heaped upon her, had the slightest influence upon her temper or deportment. She was still the same single-hearted, unsophisticated being.' During her stay in England, her poems were given to the world, dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon, and embellished with an engraving which is said to have been a striking representation of the original. It is supposed that one of these impressions was forwarded to her mistress, as soon as they were struck off; for a grand niece of Mrs. Wheatly's informs us that, during the absence of Phillis, she one day called upon her relative, who immediately directed her attention to a picture over the fire-place, exclaiming --'See! look at my Phillis! does she not seem as though she would speak to me!'
Phillis arrived in London so late in the season, that the great mart of fashion was deserted. She was therefore urgently pressed by her distinguished friends to remain until the Court returned to St. James's, that she might be presented to the young monarch, George III. She would probably have consented to this arrangement, had not letters from America informed her of the declining health of her mistress, who intreated her to return, that she might once more behold her beloved protegee.
Free labor provided possibilities for emancipation for some enslaved people. The most industrious and the most skilled of the enslaved could take greater advantage of these opportunities. Venture Smith had been born in the 1720s, the son of a West African prince who named him Broteer Furro. Slave traders captured him at the age of six, spirited him away to the coast, and transported him to a life of enslavement in Long Island and eastern Connecticut. After several changes of ownership, he was able to purchase his freedom by his labors at the age of 31. Those labors, along with his entrepreneurial activities such as fishing, working on a whaler, and agricultural activities, made possible the purchase of his son, daughter, and wife's liberty. Near the end of the 18th century he related his life history to Elisha Niles, a schoolteacher and Revolutionary war veteran. Published in 1798, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself recounted his successful negotiation of the slavery economy and recognition of free labor as the key to a free identity.
About twelve years ago, I hired a whale-boat and four black men, and proceeded to Long-Island after a load of round clams. Having arrived there, I first purchased of James Webb, son of Orange Webb, six hundred and sixty clams, and afterwards, with the help of my men, finished loading my boat. The same evening, however, this Webb stole my boat, and went in her to Connecticut River, and fold her cargo for his own benefit. I thereupon pursued him, and at length, after an additional expense of nine crowns, recovered the boat; but for the proceeds of her cargo I never could obtain any compensation.
My master owned a certain Irishman, named Heddy, who about that time formed a plan of secretly leaving his master. After he had long had this plan … he suggested it to me … after he had persuaded and much enchanted me with the prospect of gaining my freedom by such a method, I at length agreed to accompany him … We privately collected out of our master's store, six great old cheeses, two firkins of butter, and one whole batch of new bread. When we had gathered all our own clothes and some more, we took them all about midnight, and went to the waterside. We stole our master's boat, embarked, and then directed our course for the Mississippi river.
We mutually confederated (agreed) not to betray or desert one another on pain of death. We first steered our course for Montauk Point, the east end of Long Island. After our arrival there we landed, and Heddy and I made an incursion into the island after fresh water, while our two comrades were left at a little distance from the boat, employed at cooking. When Heddy and I had sought some time for water, he returned to our companions, and I continued on looking ... When Heddy had performed his business with our companions who were engaged in cooking, he went directly to the boat, stole all the clothes in it, and then traveled away for East-Hampton, as I was informed. I returned to my fellows not long after. They informed me that our clothes were stolen, but could not determine who was the thief, yet they suspected Heddy as he was missing.
The Mendingo Tribe professes Mohometanism. I became acquainted with two men of this tribe who were apparently men of considerable learning; indeed this tribe, generally, appeared to be a people of some education. Their learning appeared to be the Arabic. They do not allow spirituous liquors to be made use of in this tribe. They have declined the practice of selling their own tribe; but notwithstanding this, they continue to sell those of other tribes, and thought it hard that the traffic in slaves should be abolished, as they were made poor in consequence thereof. As they themselves were not willing to submit to the bonds of slavery, I endeavored to hold this out as a light to convince them of their error. But the prejudice of education had taken too firm hold of their minds to admit of much effect from reason on this subject.
Realizing that their best chance of emancipation lay with the British army, as many as 100,000 enslaved African Americans became Loyalists during the War for Independence. They risked possible resale by the British or capture by the Americans, and many became refugees when the British withdrew at the end of the war. Born near Charleston, South Carolina, Boston King fled his owner to join the British. He escaped captivity several times and made his way to New York, the last American port to be evacuated by the British. King was listed in the "Book of Negroes" and issued a certificate of freedom, allowing him to board one of the military transport ships bound for the free black settlements in Nova Scotia. There, King worked as a carpenter and became a Methodist minister. He moved to Sierra Leone in 1792 and published his memoirs, one of a handful of first-person accounts by African-American Loyalist refugees.The following suggested event from Boston King Chooses Freedom, also available on History Matters, is the story of a slave who chose to fight with the British to earn his freedom:
… about one o'clock in the morning I went down to the river side, and found the guards were either asleep or in the tavern. I instantly entered into the river, but when I was a little distance from the opposite shore, I heard the sentinels disputing among themselves: One said "I am sure I saw a man cross the river." Another replied, "There is no such thing." It seems they were afraid to fire at me, or make an alarm, lest they should be punished for their negligence. When I had got a little distance from the shore, I fell down upon my knees, and thanked God for the deliverance. I traveled till about five in the morning, and then concealed myself till seven o'clock at night, when I proceeded forward, thro' bushes and marshes, near the road, for fear of being discovered. When I came to the river, opposite Staten-Island, I found a boat; and altho' it was very near a whaleboat, yet I ventured into it, and cutting the rope, got safe over. The (British) commanding officer, when informed of my case, gave me a passport, and I proceeded to New-York.
3 class periods