Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly: The Material and Emotional Realities of Childhood in Slavery

Created March 24, 2015


The Lesson


Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly: composite image

Elizabeth Keckly, the seamstress, and Harriet Jacobs (inset), the hideaway.

Credit: Crafting Freedom

Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to write a slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). She was born a slave in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina, and died free in Washington, D. C., at the age of eighty-four.

Elizabeth Keckly was born into slavery in 1818 near Petersburg, Virginia. She learned to sew from her mother, an expert seamstress enslaved in the Burwell family. After thirty years as a Burwell slave, Keckly purchased her and her only son's freedom. Later, when Keckly moved to Washington, D. C., she became an exclusive dress designer whose most famous client was First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckly’s enduring fame results from her close relationship with Mrs. Lincoln, documented in her memoir, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868).

In this lesson, students learn firsthand about the childhoods of Jacobs and Keckly from reading excerpts from their autobiographies. They practice reading for both factual information and making inferences from these two primary sources. They will also learn from a secondary source about commonalities among those who experienced their childhood in slavery. By putting all this information together and evaluating it, students get the chance to "be" historians and experience what goes into making sound judgments about a certain problem—in this case, how did child slaves live?

Guiding Questions

  • What experiences defined Jacobs’s and Keckly’s memories of childhood?
  • Why do we have to be cautious in making generalizations about enslaved childhood based solely on the two primary sources, such as those provided in the Keckly and Jacobs narratives?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify facts that pertain to Keckly's and Jacobs's lives
  • Describe how Harriet Jacobs’s and Elizabeth Keckly’s specific experiences compare and contrast to those of enslaved children in general
  • Explain why incorrect inferences can be made when there are a limited number of sources from which to draw

College and Career Readiness Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8: Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9: Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.


Childhood slavery in the American South encompassed a variety of experiences and circumstances, but there were some common elements. Enslaved parents, although not allowed to be legally married, were often permitted to live within family units. Slaveholders generally provided meager rations such as corn meal and salted meat, but it was the slaves' responsibility to grow a garden or hunt for other needed food; and the long work schedules of enslaved parents often undermined their efforts to meet their children's needs. Mothers of infants were generally given minimal time off after giving birth and often had to subordinate the care of their infants to their work duties. Enslaved children under the age of four regularly suffered from malnutrition and illness, which resulted in mortality rates more than twice that of white children of the same age on major slaveholding estates.

Children throughout human history have always found moments where they could enjoy the simple pleasures of life; enslaved children were typical in this respect, even though such times for the enslaved child were generally fleeting. Enslaved children had to work at an early age. Toddlers sometimes assisted adults in gathering kindling, churning butter, chasing birds from crops, or minding babies younger than themselves. Children were considered ready for fieldwork by age ten or twelve and might be allowed more rations once they started to work full days. Some of the boys were fortunate enough to train as artisans, gaining skills in trades such as coopering, blacksmithing, or carpentry, while many girls were relegated to food preparation, spinning, and mending. Some girls were brought into the Big House to become house servants; there they often learned to sew—as did Keckly and Jacobs—and prepare food. Although enslaved children acquired many skills as they were being groomed for their life of labor, they were not allowed to go to school.

Nevertheless, some masters taught their slaves to read, as literacy could be a convenience for the master, enabling him to give orders to a slave in writing. Some slaves taught themselves to read by learning letters and then sounding out words. Although literacy was considered by most slaves to be a gateway to freedom, most slaves were illiterate because of laws against enslaved literacy, the lack of schooling for the enslaved, and the widespread belief among slave owners that reading and writing would encourage slaves to desire freedom.

Tenuous and often ruptured family ties were harmful to both the physical and emotional welfare of enslaved children. Enslaved parents had no legal claim to their children and therefore had little ability to protect them from abuse or from being sold. Moreover, owners often undermined attachments between parents and children by emphasizing that a slave child’s loyalty and obedience were first and foremost to his/her master. This created a tension that slave children felt throughout their young lives.

Preparation and Resources

Activity One.

Activity Two

*Elizabeth Keckly’s last name is often spelled “Keckley”. We are honoring Keckly’s own spelling of her last name, which lacked the extra “e.” Although we encourage the use of “Keckly,” some of the materials that you will reference for this lesson plan will present the name with the extra “e.”

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Jacobs/Keckly: Using Primary Sources

In this activity, students will learn to identify a primary source, an original document created at the time under study. To begin, show the brief videos on Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly.

Tell students that as they watch the videos, they should write down two or three observations they have learned about each woman’s childhood. Enlist volunteers to read out their statement and as a group discuss their accuracy (that is, how closely they conform to the narratives of each woman).

Primary Sources

Explain to the class that historians use specific types of information called “primary sources” to determine what happened in the past so that they can write history. This information can be stored in various formats (paper, digital, etc.), but it is always obtained through direct evidence—including first-hand accounts such as the autobiographies (also called slave narratives) of Jacobs and Keckly. Note that the video, strictly speaking, is not a primary source (in this case, it is a re-enactment for educational purposes). However, it is nonfictionalized and is faithful to the primary sources (the actual words in the autobiographies).

Let the class know that the first reading is taken from two primary sources, the autobiographies of Jacobs and Keckly.

Either distribute “‘I was Born a Slave:' Two African American Women Relate their Childhood Years and the Growing Awareness of Being Enslaved" or have students read it online.

Distribute Identification Questions and ask students to circle the appropriate responses.

Exit Ticket

As a class, discuss students’ correct responses to the Identification Questions worksheet. The Identification Questions (teacher version) has the correct responses.

Activity 2. Jacobs/Keckly: Using Secondary Sources and Making Generalizations

In this activity, students will learn to distinguish between a primary source and a secondary source (an account created by someone without first-hand experience).

Distribute The Value of Literacy to the Enslaved. Tell students that historians call this document about slaves' desire for literacy a secondary source. After students have read The Value of Literacy to the Enslaved discuss the statements about literate slaves that are directly stated in this document. (For example: literate slaves were able to forge documents such as free papers for themselves or others; some literate free blacks wrote about the evils of slavery; the state of North Carolina passed a law forbidding enslaved blacks to read; etc.).

  • Ask students how these statements differ from the ones given by Keckley and Jacobs (e.g., specific vs. general). Then ask, “How do we go from specific statements to general ones?” Go on to demonstrate how generalization functions in a secondary source. You may find it helpful to use the motorcycle analogy.*
  • Now, ask students: "Since slaves valued literacy highly and since we know that some slaves—like Keckly and Jacobs—were able to read, ­do you think that slaves in general could read?"
  • Explain: "Similarly one cannot make generalizations from a couple of primary sources such as those extracted from Keckly and Jacobs' slave narratives. Just because these two women were literate, doesn't imply that slaves in general were literate. In fact, we know from many other primary and secondary sources that, in general, slaves could not read and write.”

Lead the students in a discussion about how we make generalizations from primary sources. Note: Emphasize that a major challenge with making generalizations is that you need more than two sources (often many more) in order to be able to make a valid generalization.

Distribute Making Generalizations and ask students to respond to each of the statements about childhood slavery and discuss the answers.

The lesson should lead students to this point (which the teacher may want to summarize by saying: "Some information in sources about the past is explicitly stated, but very often historians must make inferences and draw generalizations about the “big picture” of what happened in the past. In order to make accurate inferences, they need to draw from many sources and not just a couple.


Have students write a short essay discussing three key points they have learned about childhood spent in slavery. Advise them that they will need to support each of their generalizations with evidence from their readings. They must also demonstrate their familarity with the difference between primary and secondary sources, as well as the way accurate generalizations are made on the basis of proper evidence. 



Extending The Lesson

  • Encourage students to answer the following question in a one or two paragraph essay: Imagine that you were Harriet Jacobs or Elizabeth Keckly. What would be the worst thing about your childhood? How would you cope with your situation?
  • Encourage students to write a one or two paragraph essay that discusses how Jacobs’s and Keckly’s childhood experiences in slavery helped to prepare them for their lives as adults. Encourage students to cite specific examples, like how learning to sew as a child, provided Keckly with the skills that she later used to earn a living.

The Basics

Time Required

2-4 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 > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Crafting Freedom
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)

Related Lessons