Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

“Twelve Years a Slave”: Was the Case of Solomon Northup Exceptional?

Created March 27, 2014


The Lesson


Solomon Northup

Image from frontispiece for original edition of 12 Years a Slave

Credit: Documenting the America South

The voices and words of people from the past ground us in actual lived experience as refracted through individual memory, challenging what we think we know about the past and opening our eyes to our common humanity across distances of time and space.

—Dr. William L. Andrews

This lesson focuses on the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black living in the North, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Slave narratives are autobiographies of former slaves that describe their experiences during enslavement, how they became free, and their lives in freedom. Because slave narratives treat the experience of one person, they raise questions about whether that individual’s experiences exceptional.

In addition to being kidnapped, Northup served for eight years as a slave driver on a cotton plantation. “Drivers” were enslaved men responsible for getting maximum productivity from their fellow slaves by force of whip, if necessary. This role had high status and it came with special privileges. Northup whipped slaves harshly at times, yet at other times he risked being whipped himself and even risked losing his privileged position by faking whippings and refusing to whip.

Was it rare for a free black like Northup to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South? Was Northup’s approach to being a slave driver exceptional?

In this lesson, students learn how to take evidence from a slave narrative and other sources and use them to make inferences about roles, relationships, and experiences that were part of the “lived experience” of slavery. They examine two of Northup’s experiences—his kidnapping and his role as slave driver—in conjunction with other sources, and from these cite what the texts say explicitly and also draw inferences from what the texts imply.

Guiding Questions

  • How can we determine how widespread or typical experiences reported in a slave narrative such as Twelve Years a Slave actually were?
  • Why is it important to know how to make inferences from a set of historical evidence or from a set of evidence about current events?

Learning Objectives

  • To cite evidence from the Solomon Northup’s narrative and other primary and secondary sources about Northup’s experiences (as a kidnap victim and as a slave driver) and to use this evidence to make inferences.
  • To describe free black kidnapping and the role of plantation slave driver, citing evidence from Northup’s narrative and other primary and secondary sources.

College and Career Readiness Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Individual Grade
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.-11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8: Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.


Slave narratives are former slaves’ accounts of their experiences during enslavement, how they became free, and their lives in freedom. Because of their influence on American literature, they are also increasingly viewed as seminal literary works in their own right. Slave narratives are critical historical documents on slavery, as well. Although readers have responded to the narratives’ disturbing scenes of inhumanity and struggle with incredulity, studies conducted to authenticate slave narratives have discovered few discrepancies with historical fact.

Slave narratives raise questions about how commonplace the experiences depicted in narratives were. For example, was Solomon Northup’s being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South exceptional or commonplace? To make such determinations we must gather evidence from multiple sources including reviewing conclusions of other historians who have examined the available evidence.

Read more (PDF)

Preparation and Resources

View the brief trailer from 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Note: The complete text of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed digital archive of Documenting the American South. For further historical context, read the “Introduction to the North American Slave Narrative” from the same archive.

Activity 1

Activity 2

Overall Assessment

Bolded readings are used for the text analysis activities in this lesson and are excerpted as PDFs. These 87 pages are the most critical readings from the 336 page narrative:

  • xv-xvi (Editor’s Preface);
  • pp. 17–27 (Chapter I)
  • pp. 28–39 (Chapter II: Northup is tricked into taking a job and traveling south, drinking in Washington, D.C., discovering himself in chains)
  • pp. 75–89 (Eliza and sale of her children; Freeman’s slave pen and sale to Ford); pp. 89–99 (Ford and Northup’s early successes as a slave)
  • pp. 105–117 (a fight with Tibeats and aftermath)
  • pp. 162–163 (introduction to Epps)
  • pp. 180–185 (life under Epps)
  • pp.188–189 (Patsey)
  • pp. 223–227 (Northup as slave driver)
  • pp. 230–235 (foiled in writing a letter)
  • pp. 254–260 (the beating of Patsey by Northup and Epps)
  • pp. 312–318 (frustration with the case against Burch)
  • pp. 319–321 (Northup family reunion)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Examining Evidence on Free Black Kidnapping

If time permits, have students read the 87 pages in the narrative listed under step two of Preparation and Resources, perhaps as homework before this lesson.

  • Ask students: What is a slave narrative? Reinforce the correct answers and redefine.
  • Deliver a short (10–15 minute) overview using the PowerPoint presentation Solomon Northup and Twelve Years a Slave: Analyzing Slave Narratives.
  • Show the short video trailer for 12 Years a Slave. Ask students: “Who has read Solomon Northup’s slave narrative?” or “Who has seen the movie 12 Years a Slave directed by Stephen McQueen or Solomon Northup’s Odyssey directed by Gordon Parks?” In the discussion make sure that students understand the narrative’s storyline. (Refer to their readings from the narrative if you have assigned it.)
  • Reinforce the storyline: Northup was a free black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Ask students: “Can we assume that Northup’s experience being kidnapped was commonplace? Why or why not?”
  • Discuss why one cannot make such an assumption from only one source. The learning goal is that one must examine other sources to determine if an experience in a slave narrative (or any single primary source) was either rare or commonplace.
    Teacher should summarize by stating that slave narratives provide much insight into what it was like to be enslaved; however, the only way to determine whether an experience, behavior, practice or attitude described in a narrative can be generalized to a larger group of enslaved or free blacks is by examining other primary and secondary sources on the subject.
  • Distribute Free Black Kidnapping. Have small  teams of three to four students read the material and make inferences from the sources. Encourage teams to discuss and to collectively develop their best responses. You may wish to ask them to designate someone to record all responses (a recorder) as well as someone to present the team’s responses to the whole class (a presenter). Each team member should read all sources. (The readings may also be assigned in advance as homework.)
  • Ask selected teams to present their responses to the whole class. Lead a discussion using Free Black Kidnapping Responses.
Activity 2. Examining Evidence on Slave Drivers

(Steps 1–5 are the same as for Activity 1)

  • Distribute Slave Drivers. Have small teams of students read the material and answer the questions. Encourage each team to discuss responses among themselves and to collectively develop their best responses. You may wish to ask them to designate someone to record all responses (a recorder) as well as someone to present the team’s responses to the whole class (a presenter). Each team member should read all sources.
  • Have selected teams present their responses to the whole class. Lead a discussion using Slave Drivers: Responses to Questions for Class Discussion.
  • Distribute Slave Drivers: Assessment. Have students do this as an assessment.
  • Use Slave Drivers: Assessment Answer Sheet to assess student work.


Distribute Was Solomon Northup Exceptional? Assessment Ask students to demonstrate mastery of lesson objectives by answering the multiple-choice questions.

Extending The Lesson

  • Using knowledge gained in this lesson about free black kidnapping and the social and economic and factors that made it prevalent create historical fiction “diary entries” from the perspective of a free black kidnap victim or from the perspective of free black kidnappers.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)