Families in Bondage

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.

Guiding Questions

No Guiding Questions

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