Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

William Henry Singleton’s Resistance to Slavery: Overt and Covert

Created June 17, 2015


The Lesson


Singleton Lesson 1 image

Runaway Slave ad. Carolina Watchman (Salisbury, NC), July 17, 1840.

Credit: Digital Library on American Slavery, University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

In this lesson, students will learn that enslaved people resisted their captivity constantly. Because they were living under the domination of their masters, slaves knew that direct, outright, overt resistance—such as talking back, hitting their master or running away––could result in being whipped, sold away from their families and friends, or even killed. Nonetheless, the regular appearance of runaway slave advertisements in newspapers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries demonstrates that despite the high likelihood and dire consequences of being caught, many enslaved people attempted to run away. Most enslaved people, however, resisted their captivity in ways that were covert or concealed, masked, and hidden.

William Henry Singleton was born into slavery in 1843 in New Bern, North Carolina, and ran away from his master several times. When he was only six or seven years old, he ran all the way from Atlanta to the North Carolina plantation where his mother lived. Singleton also resisted slavery by pretending to be ignorant, by hiding, and by assisting and serving in the Union Army.

Video, Boy Runaway

Through watching a short video, and reading selected excerpts from his narrative, students will explore how enslaved people like Singleton did not passively accept their condition but resisted it in numerous ways. They will learn about covert as well as overt resistance and will reflect upon the techniques people use to resist injustice today.

Guiding Questions

  • What do William Henry Singleton's life experiences teach us about resistance to slavery?
  • What are injustices today that need to be resisted and what are various resistance strategies?

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish covert from overt ways of resisting and provide examples of both
  • List and discuss the various ways Singleton resisted slavery, including running away when he was a child
  • Explain why covert slave resistance was much more common than overt resistance

College and Career Readiness Standards

Anchor Standard:
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.

Grade Level 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.


Students often ask: Why didn't slaves just rebel? To respond to this, you might ask: If for every person on your team, there were 100 or more people on the other team, could your team be successful? Overt rebellion was not practical because those in authority were far more numerous, better armed, and better organized than insurgent groups of slaves. Slave insurrections were quickly put down and the rebels (and often other innocent black people) were severely punished or killed in retaliation.

Covert or "secret" and "hidden" strategies of resistance were more sustainable and successful because they could be implemented without the instigator (or sometimes even the act of resistance itself) being detected, often for long periods of time. Covert resistance is characterized by: An unclear or concealed group responsible for the action; a hidden real motive; a concealed action, i.e., spitting in the master’s soup!

Covert forms of slave resistance often involved resisting work.

  • Individual slaves would pretend to be too sick to work or groups of slaves would "slow down" their work. Because the slaves were in collusion, it was difficult if not impossible to ascribe blame to any one individual with work slowdowns.
  • Work was also sabotaged by acts of arson, like burning fields or buildings and pretending it was an accident.
  • Breaking tools (pretending it was "by mistake") and letting livestock stray and wander off were other common ways work was sabotaged.
  • Another way that slaves resisted was by using "coded" messages. The types of codes used varied and were even conveyed through the lyrics of songs.
  • Stealing or taking things that belong to the master, such as food or crops, was also very common.

In slave culture, information was a source of power and slaves acquired information for their own advantage, yet frequently pretended to be ignorant of what their masters were saying. Their "ignorance" could also help them resist their masters' commands because they could feign they didn't understand. William Henry Singleton learned at an early age to answer "I don't know" when anyone asked him anything. This standard response enabled him to camouflage his activities.

Note: Before students begin to read Singleton’s narrative, be sure to explain why they might find typographical errors, misspellings, and the use of United Kingdom English spellings for certain words within the narrative. Inform them that spellings and capitalizations of some words have changed over the last century. Point out that Singleton’s publisher, a small-town newspaper in New York, may not have had the resources to proofread his narrative as carefully as a more established book publisher. Students should not assume that differences between spellings in Singleton’s narrative and today are reflective of Singleton’s intelligence.

Preparation and Resources

Activity 1

  • Read the Brief Biography of William Henry Singleton.
  • Review the short video, Boy Runaway, which features an actor playing the role of William Henry Singleton as an old man describing his experience running away when he was a child.
  • Distribute Worksheet for Boy Runaway to students and review Worksheet for Boy Runaway (teacher version).
  • Review the handout Various Forms of Resistance to Slavery.
  • Review Recollections of My Slavery Days with Emphasis on Resistance (teacher version), which identifies the types of resistance employed by Singleton throughout the passages of the narrative. Students will work in small groups to read this resource in a version with emphasis added to the passages that reveal numerous examples of resistance to slavery, such as running away, hiding, pretending to be ignorant, and assisting and serving in the Union Army.
  • In this lesson, as students explore the long journey that Singleton made from Atlanta, Georgia, to Wilmington, North Carolina, and then on to New Bern, North Carolina as a small boy, show them the distance between these places on a United States map in your classroom or have them find the distance themselves using a mapping application like MapQuest.

Activity 2

  • Identify a short list of injustices of which your students are aware. These injustices can include things they are learning about in their social studies or language arts class, current events, or even things around your community or school. Examples of injustice include genocide, torture, and discrimination based on race, religion, gender, etc.
  • Review the Final Assessment, which presents an assignment for students to complete.
  • Review the Final Assessment Rubric.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Learning from the “Recollections”

Begin this lesson by asking questions that engage students in thinking about how enslaved people felt about their captivity:

  • Do they think enslaved people accepted their lack of freedom and the legality of their being considered the property of others?
  • How do they think slaves resisted or opposed their enslavement? [Note: Some students may repeat the myth that slaves acquiesced to their enslavement, an incorrect notion that this lesson plan aims to dispel.]

Students will likely focus on overt forms of resistance, such as violence against white owners, group rebellions/insurrections, or running away. Use the information in Background and Various Forms of Resistance to Slavery, to provide an overview of resistance. Be sure to open with overt resistance, especially slave rebellion, a concept with which students will likely be familiar.

Distribute Worksheet for Boy Runaway. Show the short video, Boy Runaway. Have students answer the questions on the sheet after watching the video. Hold a class discussion about these findings.

Provide an overview of the life of Singleton using the Brief Biography of William Henry Singleton. Have students note two points they learned about resistance from the overview.

Ask students to work in small groups to read Recollections of My Slavery Days with Emphasis on Resistance (or some part of it), paying close attention to the ways that Singleton resisted slavery.

Ask students to write down the specific way Singleton resisted next to each of the bold passages in his narrative. They will also need to provide a brief explanation of why Singleton’s resistance was either covert or overt. Discuss as a class.

Exit Ticket: Lead a discussion about overt and covert forms of resistance exemplified by William Henry Singleton. Emphasize Singleton’s escape and long journey from Georgia to North Carolina when he was only a child. Either show them the distance (over 500 miles) on your classroom map or have them look it up on MapQuest. Ask them to imagine traveling that whole distance at so young an age and with so little assistance.

Activity 2. Injustice and Forms of Resistance

When teaching the topic of resistance, consider that students often use resistance techniques in the classroom to "resist doing their work", for example: pretending to be sick, feigning ignorance of their assignments, or even more overt forms such as not doing assigned work and challenging the teacher’s authority.

Since most students will naturally be familiar with resistance behavior, encourage them to think about when resistance is appropriate. It is important to clarify that while resistance to slavery is behavior we admire, it is not always appropriate to resist. It is not in one's interest to resist people like parents, teachers, and coaches, who are trying to help a young person improve their chances of success in life. People who are abusing their power or who are doing unjust or evil acts, on the other hand, should be resisted in overt ways, such as telling a trusted person about the abuse.

Present other examples of injustice that you prepared for the lesson plan. Examples of injustice include genocide, torture, and discrimination based on race, religion, gender, etc. Discuss the ways that the injustice might be resisted and why it is important to understand that there is more than one way to resist injustice. Be sure to discuss how students might identify something as unjust. Lead a discussion about what circumstances call for resistance.

Ask them to consider several factors when thinking about appropriate ways to resist such as:

    • Why they want to resist;
    • Whether resisting would be worth the possible consequences;
    • What the goal of resisting is;
    • What some of the options are for how to resist; and,
    • Which option they would choose (and why).

Exit Ticket: Have students lead a discussion or a debate about two opposing ways that one might resist one form of injustice.

Distribute the Final Assessment and ask students to complete it. Grade the assignment using the Final Assessment Rubric.

Extending The Lesson

  • William Henry Singleton’s slave narrative is written from the perspective of an old man looking back on his life, highlighting the memory of running away as a six or seven-year-old boy. How might the experience of running away have been described from the perspective of a boy that age? Have students write a diary entry from the perspective of Singleton as a young boy describing his escape (or part of it) from Atlanta to New Bern.
  • After exposing students to the experiences of fugitive slaves (including such Freedom Crafters as William Henry Singleton, Harriet Jacobs, and Henry “Box” Brown), ask students to create a fictional short story in which they depict an enslaved child who runs away from his or her owner. Show students that they can locate primary sources of runway slave adverts available online at The Geography of Slavery or North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements. They might, for example, choose ads from your home state or ads about young people the age of your students who ran away from slavery. Encourage them to select from various sources of input and experiences for this fiction writing assignment from the different sources they have—including the runaway slave ads, slave narratives, and short biographies—to incorporate into their short stories.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Crafting Freedom
  • 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 > Themes > Slavery
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)