Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Families in Bondage

Created September 26, 2010

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Families in Bondage: Slave Family Portrait

Slave Family Portrait

This two-part lesson plan draws on letters written by African Americans in slavery and by free blacks to loved ones still in bondage, singling out a few among the many slave experiences to offer students a glimpse into slavery and its effects on African American family life. In Part I, students examine the letters of Hannah Valentine, an enslaved woman who lived on a Virginia plantation, drawing information from them to diagram her own family circle and the network of relationships to white society that defined her world. They next compare Valentine's letters to her daughter and husband with a letter to her master's wife, noting differences in tone and substance to draw conclusions about the emotional bonds within her family and the more problematic bonds that made her part of her master's family as well. Finally, students write a short analysis describing Valentine's complex family life. In Part II of the lesson plan, students read letters from a fugitive slave to his still-enslaved wife and from a black Union soldier to his still-enslaved daughters, confronting directly the anguish of separation that was a constant factor in African American family life during slave times, when children and parents, husbands and wives, were routinely sold away from one another. Through these letters, students explore some of the ways African Americans sought to overcome this anguish, and using these letters as a lens, they re-examine Hannah Valentine's letters to discover a similar anguish in her seemingly secure family life. Finally, students explore the emotional terrain revealed in these letters by comparing the response to separation voiced by Valentine with that voiced by the Union soldier and the fugitive slave.

Learning Objectives

  • To gain insight into the experience of African Americans during slave times
  • To explore the effects of slavery on African American family life
  • To examine some ways that African Americans in slavery sought to cope with their condition
  • To gain experience in working with personal correspondence as a primary resource for historical study

Preparation Instructions

NOTE:Some students may react emotionally to letters describing the experience of African Americans in slavery. Educators should preview the letters presented in this lesson plan to determine whether the material is appropriate for class discussion.

Introduce this lesson by asking students what they already know about slavery in the United States. Note their responses on the chalkboard to create a summary of their views on the subject. Lead a discussion to help students distinguish their opinions about slavery from their knowledge about it. Help them also distinguish their knowledge about the institution of slavery from their knowledge about the experience of living in slavery. Ask: How do these two perspectives differ? What can we learn about slavery from those who lived as slaves? What might their voices add to our understanding of African American history?

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Hannah Valentine and the Montcalm Plantation

Distribute copies of the three letters written by Hannah Valentine available through EDSITEment at the Documents of African-American Women website. (At the website homepage, click on "Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson: Slave Letters." Click on "About Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson" for background on these women, then click on "Read items from the collection" and select each of the three letters by Hannah Valentine to Eliza, her daughter; to Michael Valentine, her husband; and to Mary Campbell, her master's wife to obtain transcripts. You can also retrieve images of the handwritten letters themselves by following the links that accompany each transcript.) Explain to students that Hannah Valentine was a house slave at the Montcalm plantation in Abingdon, Virginia, and that she wrote these letters in 1837 and 1838, when her master, David Campbell, served as governor and had moved his family and several of his slaves, including Hannah's daughter and husband, to the state capital in Richmond.

Share with students the present-day photographs of Montcalm available at the Documents of African American Women website. (Select the "Photographs of Montcalm and slave house" link on the "Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson: Slave Letters" webpage.) Discuss briefly how these images compare with students' preconceptions about a Southern plantation. Have students locate Abingdon and Richmond using a map of Virginia (available through EDSITEment at the National Geographic Society Xpeditions website: at the homepage, click on "Atlas," then click "U.S." in the navigation bar at the top of the frame and select "Virginia" in the scrolling menu at the left.) Discuss briefly how Abingdon's isolated location in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, amid the Appalachian Mountains, may have influenced life there.

Divide the class into study groups and have each group use the Valentine letters to create a web diagram of the relationships among all the people mentioned in them. Who are the slaves and who are the masters? How can we tell? Who are the members of Hannah's immediate family? Who are her more distant relatives and friends? (To assist in these identifications, provide students with the partial list of Hannah Valentine's children from the "About Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson" page at the Documents of African-American Women website.) Who are the members of her master's family? Who are their relatives, friends, and employees? As they develop their web diagrams, encourage students to consider where Hannah herself fits into this network of social relationships. To what degree is she a subordinate figure? To what degree is she of central importance in the Montcalm social circle? Have each group share its diagram with the class and its opinion about the role of specific individuals, such as the overseer Mr. Lathum and the preacher Winton Late. What picture of plantation society emerges from these letters? To what extent are Hannah and her family part of this society? To what extent are they part of a separate African American society?

Inform students that slaves were for the most part not permitted to learn how to read or write. Have them point out indications in Hannah Valentine's letters that she wrote them by dictation to a white person and that they were read aloud by a white person to her husband and daughter. Explore the implications of this enforced illiteracy for the relationship between slave and master by having students role-play the situation in their study groups, letting one student read each letter aloud to the group. Where does the tone or subject matter of the letter suggest that Hannah Valentine is speaking indirectly to her master's family through what is supposed to be a private letter to a member of her own family? What messages does she convey in this way? Where does she seek to influence her masters' attitude toward herself and the members of her family by this indirect method? Where does she attempt to influence their behavior? What aspects of these two letters, by contrast, seem directed solely to her daughter or husband? What is her message to them? What concerns of theirs does she address? What concerns do students imagine Hannah leaves unmentioned, knowing that her words are being overheard by her master?

Students will notice that Hannah sent messages to other members of her family through her daughter and husband. Have students consider whether this is a simple courtesy or an effort to maintain the bonds of kinship among members of a family dispersed among many masters. Compare this sharing of affections with the sharing of news that characterizes Hannah's letter to Mary Campbell. What are the bonds that she seeks to strengthen by informing her master's wife in detail of recent events on the plantation and in the neighborhood? What role does Hannah seem to play in the Campbell's family life? Is she part of their family as well? Have students discuss in their groups and share as a class how they think Mary Campbell regarded the enslaved woman Hannah Valentine. How might she have described Hannah? What might have been her feelings toward Hannah? Have students support their inferences with reference to Hannah Valentine's letters. To what extent can Hannah be said to have made a place for herself in the Campbell family and thereby gained a measure of "freedom" despite her enslavement?

Conclude this part of the lesson by having students write an essay describing what family life was like for African Americans and whites at the Montcalm plantation. What would family life at Montcalm look like through the eyes of Hannah's daughter, Eliza, for example? How did it appear to Miss Virginia Campbell, the master's daughter? Have students read their essays aloud to compare the understandings they have drawn from Hannah Valentine's letters.

Activity 2. The Letters of John Boston and Spotswood Rice

To deepen students' insight into the experience of slavery, focus next on several letters written by African American men who gained freedom for themselves but left loved ones behind them in bondage. Two such letters are accessible through EDSITEment at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project. To retrieve the John Boston letter, click on "Maryland Fugitive Slave to His Wife." To retrieve the Spotswood Rice letters, click on "Missouri Black Soldier to His Enslaved Daughters." Both documents are also accessible through the "Destruction of Slavery" link and "The Black Military Experience" link on the website's homepage.

Introduce these letters by having students consider their historical context. Draw a timeline on the chalkboard and mark January 1862, the date of Boston's letter, and September 1864, the date of Rice's letters.

  • Through class discussion, have students locate important events on this timeline, such as the outbreak of the Civil War at Fort Sumter (April 1861), the Confederate victories at Bull Run (July 1861 and August 1862), the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg (July 1863), the Union assault on Atlanta (November 1864), and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox (April 1865). Ask what impact this course of events may have had on Boston and Rice as they wrote their letters.
  • Next focus specifically on developments that affected the institution of slavery during this period, referring to the "Chronology of Emancipation during the Civil War" available at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project website. (On the website's homepage, click on "Chronology of Emancipation.") Note, for example, that it was not until March 1862 that Congress assured fugitive slaves a safe haven among Union troops, and not until March 1865 that Congress liberated the still-enslaved wives and children of black Union soldiers. Help students recognize that Boston and Rice were both acting in advance of such official developments, taking risks in a historical situation that may seem clear and certain from our perspective but that was uncertain from their point of view.
  • To emphasize this point, have students consider how the Emancipation Proclamation affected the status of Boston and Rice and their families. Remind students that the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in the Confederate states, not in border states like Missouri and Maryland. How might Boston and Rice have interpreted this executive act? Did it necessarily promise freedom to their loved ones, or did it imply that they might remain enslaved after the war?

Have students read and discuss the letters written by John Boston and Spotswood Rice. These letters speak powerfully of the anguish of separation experienced by African Americans throughout the period when their families were routinely torn apart by the slave trade.

Have students consider first the part that religious faith plays in helping these families cope with separation. Both Boston and Rice foresee a day when they will be reunited with their loved ones by divine authority. How does the reunion that John Boston envisions differ from that foreseen by Spotswood Rice? How might the course of events during the Civil War have contributed to this difference? To what degree is Rice's faith in God reinforced by his faith in the United States government and its military power? Have students similarly contrast the moral views Boston and Rice express toward their loved ones' masters, Prescia Owen ("Tell Mrs. Owen that I trust she will continue her kindness to you and that God will bless her") and Kitty Diggs ("As for her Christianity, I expect the devil has such in hell").

Call students' attention to the fact that Spotswood Rice evidently wrote at least part of his letters himself. How would the assumption that he and his daughters could read and write help explain the differences in tone and attitude between his letters and that of the presumably illiterate John Boston? With this in mind, have students look back at the letters of Hannah Valentine for evidence that she too felt the anguish of separation so vividly expressed by Boston and Rice. Call attention to her repeated reassurances that her daughter Eliza's children "seem to be very well satisfied without her." Note also the reassuring manner with which she tells her son Richard that she has lost contact with his wife, who seems to have been sold or sent away from Montcalm to a plantation in Mississippi. Have students compare Valentine's handling of these painful circumstances -- a mother forced to leave her children, a husband deprived of his wife -- with the similarly consoling way in which John Boston seeks to soften the pain of separation for his wife. Against this background of controlled and suppressed emotion, what is the force of Valentine's statement (in her letter to her husband Michael), "I begin to feel so anxious to hear from you"? What fuels her anxiety aside from feeling lonesome? And how does this anxiety add urgency to the messages of affection she sends through her letters to all the absent members of her family?

Have students consider finally the relationships implied by Boston's letter to his wife and Rice's letter to his daughters. How do they address their loved ones' feelings of abandonment? What message about themselves do they send? How do they ask to be perceived? What continuing role do they claim for themselves in their loved ones' lives? What are the bonds that still connect them? Students might find their way to this intimate and interpersonal level of communication through dramatic readings of the letters. Have several members of the class (or several students in each study group) speak for Boston and Rice in this way. What emotions are called up as they read? Guilt? Sadness? Resolution? Fear? Love? What emotions are stirred up in the student audience? Would they feel consoled and content, as the writers hope, if they were the women who received these letters? Have students analyze the impact of these letters by writing an essay comparing the response to separation voiced by Boston and Rice with that voiced by Hannah Valentine.

Extending The Lesson

  • For further insight into the experience of slavery and into African American family life during slave times, have students examine a letter written in 1857 by a slave woman named Vilet Lester, accessible through EDSITEment at the Documents of African-American Women. For a more fully developed firsthand portrayal of slave life, have students read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs, available through EDSITEment at the Documenting the American South.
  • Finally, to broaden students' perspective, have them visit the "African American Odyssey" exhibit at the American Memory Project website, accessible through EDSITEment. (At the American Memory homepage, click on "Browse" for a list of online resources, then select "African American Odyssey.") This rich collection of images documents black America's quest for equality from the late 18th century down to the Civil Rights Era, with extensive material on slavery and the tradition of resistance to enslavement through strategies ranging from open rebellion to the pursuit of spiritual freedom in religious faith.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Online research
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources

Resources

Media