Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

The Lesson


Anti-slavery poster form the 1850s

Anti-slavery poster form the 1850s

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

One of the great tragedies of American history was the treatment of African-Americans. African slaves arrived with some of the earliest European settlers, and slavery had been a centuries-old institution in America by the 1850s.

Civil War, American
The chief and immediate cause of the war was slavery. Southern states, including the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, depended on slavery to support their economy. Southerners used slave labor to produce crops, especially cotton. Although slavery was illegal in the Northern states, only a small proportion of Northerners actively opposed it.

—Source: "Civil War, American." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000

Guiding Questions

  • What differences existed between ordinary Americans living in the North and those living in the South in the years before the Civil War?
  • What important issues are reflected in the differences between life in the North and the South?
  • What kinds of changes were taking place in the United States at the time?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson plan students will be able to

  • Understand the conflict between North and South over the issue of slavery
  • Be familiar wit the arguments for and against slavery, and the history of abolitionist sentiment in America
  • Be familiar with the working and living conditions for slaves
  • Be familiar with the working and living conditions for wage workers in the North
  • Be aware of the extent, geographic and demographic, of slavery.

Preparation Instructions

Sometimes, people will fight to keep someone else from being treated poorly. Disagreement over slavery was central to the conflict between the North and the South. The nation was deeply divided.

Note: Slavery was a cruel system. To study slavery means to encounter facts and/or images some students may find unsettling—including the fact that many people in the South vigorously defended it. Sensitivity to these issues is recommended throughout this lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Debate Against Slavery

Prior to the Civil War, ours was a nation half-slave and half-free. Show your students a map such as Reynolds Political Map of the United States, designed to exhibit the comparative area of the free and slave states, New York and Chicago, 1856.

As students who read the Lewiston Mill Rules in Lesson 1 will recognize, conditions for workers in the North were often less than optimal. Pay was low, hours were long, workplaces were dangerous and much was expected of the workers, who were at the same time looked down upon by almost anyone in a superior position. Such conditions served as fodder for people who apologized for or even supported slavery in their arguments against abolition, which were ultimately arguments that defended racism.

In this lesson, students will argue against slavery using evidence they gather from archival documents. To help students develop their argument against slavery, select representative documents from the following resources to share with students. (Note: Asterisks denote items of special interest.) You may wish to have students work in groups and use the document analysis worksheets available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom to review these documents. If desired, students can also use the worksheet 19th Century Arguments For and Against Slavery, available in .pdf format. After students have analyzed the documents, ask them to describe each document and to tell what is revealed about African Americans' quality of life through the document.

Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885) (available through a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory)
Martin Robison Delany was an editor, author, physician, abolitionist, black nationalist, colonizationist and army officer. In 1847, Delany joined Frederick Douglass as co-editor of the newspaper The North Star.
He toured Ohio to gather subscribers and news for the paper. During the Civil War, Delany was an official recruiter for African-American military units. In 1865, he was commissioned as a Major in the army, making him the first African-American field officer of high rank.
An African-American Newspaper (available through a link from American Memory)
Frederick Douglass, one of the best known and most articulate free black spokesmen during the antebellum years, was born a slave circa 1817. After he ran away, Douglass tirelessly fought for emancipation and full citizenship for African-Americans. Despite the failure of earlier African-American newspapers, Douglass founded The North Star in December 1847. The masthead contained the motto, "Right is of no sex, truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all -- and all are brethren." In 1851, it merged with the Liberty Party Paper and soon changed its name to the Frederick Douglass Paper. A contemporary African-American journalist observed that Douglass's ability as a newspaper editor and publisher did more for the "freedom and elevation of his race than all his platform appearances."
First of the Letters to R. C. Ballard Regarding Slave Woman Abuse (available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Africans in America)
Robert James Harlan (1816-1897) (available through a link from American Memory)
A businessman, army officer and civil rights leader, Robert James Harlan accumulated gold worth $90,000 during the California Gold Rush, which he invested in real estate in Cincinnati. He built the first school in Cincinnati for African-American children.
Harriet Tubman escapes slavery (available through a link from American Memory)
A poster (high-resolution image) revealing the intensity of feelings against slavery a decade before war: "Union with freemen --No union with slaveholders. Anti-slavery meetings!" (available from American Memory)
Photograph of the barn on the Seth Marshall homestead in Painesville, Lake County, Ohio (available through a link from American Memory)
The barn was a hiding place for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Photograph of the Ripley, Ohio Wesleyan (African) Church (available through a link from American Memory)
This church was built prior to the Civil War by free African-Americans and slaves, the latter crossing from Kentucky with the consent of their masters.
The Snowden Family of Clinton, Knox County, Ohio (available through a link from American Memory)
The Snowdens were an African-American family of musicians who performed banjo and fiddle tunes and sang popular songs for black and white audiences throughout rural central Ohio from the 1850s to the early 20th century. African-Americans in Knox County have long claimed that Daniel D. Emmett learned the song "Dixie" from the Snowdens.
Certificate of Permission to Reside in Petersburg, Virginia (available through a link from American Memory)
This certificate, penned in 1851, indicates that the 42-year-old mulatto Harriet Bolling was freed by James Bolling in 1842. Freeborn blacks could stay in Virginia, but emancipated African-Americans were generally required to leave the state. This certificate states that the court allowed Bolling "to remain in this Commonwealth and reside in Petersburg."
Slave letter text and image of original (available from the EDSITEment resource Valley of the Shadow)
Proceedings of the Colored National Convention Held in Rochester (available from American Memory)
Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, African-American leaders became increasingly impatient with the lack of improvement in political and social conditions for their race. The national convention movement among free persons of color provided an independent arena where their interests could be defined and strategies developed for their improvement. This pamphlet of convention proceedings addressed the "conflict now going on in our land between liberty and equality on the one hand and slavery and caste on the other."
Wanted Poster for Emily -- Runaway Slave (available through a link from American Memory)
Certificate of Proof of Citizenship for a Free Black Man Serving as a Seaman (available through a link from American Memory)
In the event of capture or impressment, sailors needed to have documents on file to verify that they were citizens of the United States. For this reason, the government provided seamen's protection certificates for those who served at sea, including thousands of African-American seamen. This certificate is for 20-year-old Samuel Fox, who is described as having a "light African complexion, black woolly hair and brown eyes."
Anthony Burns (a slave) Speaks (available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Africans in America)
Slave Letter: Vilet Lester letter to Miss Patsey Patterson, August 29, 1857, and background information (available through a link from Documents of African-American Women)
The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children
(Search American Memory by title to find this document. Page 10 is ideal for showing the intended message of the book.)
Largest Slave Auction, March 3, 1859, and Illustration of a Slave Auction (available through a link from American Memory)
Alfred Francis Russell, three-quarter length portrait (available from American Memory)
Russell was born in Kentucky and moved to Liberia in 1833. He was chosen Vice President of Liberia from 1878 to 1883 and became President in 1883.
Slave Trade and background information (available through a link from American Memory)
This image depicts the miserable, cramped conditions of 510 Africans on board the Wildfire, who, while being smuggled into the United States in 1860, were captured by an anti-slaving vessel. The slaves were taken to Key West, Florida, and from there were sent to Liberia where the United States regularly repatriated "recaptured" Africans after 1808.


To culminate this lesson, ask students to demonstrate their knowledge of the institution of slavery, as well as what they learned about conditions for free workers in the North in the years before the Civil War. Have the students share specific information gleaned from the table of resources above that they find especially interesting or fascinating.

Extending The Lesson

  • Not all African Americans were enslaved in the years before the Civil War. Show your students a map such as Free Persons of Color (available through a link from the EDSITEment resource Valley of the Shadow) to illustrate that free blacks lived throughout our nation, most notably in the South.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin created a sensation. Lincoln himself called the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, "the little lady who made this big war." Her fiction managed to dramatize the realities of slavery for many Northerners in a way nothing else had. Read all about it in Uncle Tom's Cabin Appeared in Serial Form, June 5, 1851.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • 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 > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Debate
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets