Slavery in the United States

Hook | Questions | Procedures | Data Investigation | Analysis | Findings | New Questions

Student Page

LynAnne Boulette
Joseph Hartman


graphic on slavery

One of the darkest periods in American history centers around the development and proliferation of slavery in the United States. The atrocities committed under the umbrella of the slave system in the 19th century resonate through American culture still today. Many victims of slavery today are relucant to discuss their dark pasts, but fortunately, many brave Americans who witnessed and suffered through slavery firsthand have documented their stories for us.


Students might ask similar but different questions than those listed here. The more students are guided to ask specific questions, the less inquiry-oriented the activity.

The purpose of the assignment is to have the students create a comprehensive mental image of what daily life was like for a slave in 19th century America by gathering information from first hand accounts and recordings. Some of the possible questions that students might ask during the project include:

  1. Were slaves happy?
  2. Were slaves educated?
  3. Did slaves have families?

There might be a list of sub-questions that will be asked as well.

  1. Were families kept together?
  2. How were they punished?
  3. How many hours did they work each day?


After students have asked questions related to the topic, they will need to decide a number of things, including:

  • Type(s) of data needed to answer the questions
  • Defining important terms
  • Choosing tools for data manipulation
  • Defining how data will be manipulated and presented

Type(s) of Data

Primary sources, which include firsthand accounts, written/recorded memories, audio clips, and pictures.

Defining Important Terms

Master: owner of slave(s), slave owner
Mistress: wife of a slave owner

There are countless words to be found in the collections that are misspelled on purpose to reflect the dialect of the times. These words will need to be addressed as they arise in the student's investigations. Some examples include:

  • jes = just
  • cain't = can't
  • 'bout = about
  • gittin' = getting

Additionally there may be words used in the collections that are not typically used in the English language today. These words may be used as sayings to reflect feelings or may be expressions that have disappeared over time. They too will require teacher explanation as they arise.

Investigation Tool(s)

Students will use the Internet for investigations, and the concept mapping program Inspiration to create a map guiding students' interpretations and conclusions drawn from the accounts.

Manipulating Data

Questions that are addressed prior to the investigation will be answered by expanding the concept maps accordingly.

Data Investigation

There is often a giant leap from defining the type(s) of data desired and actually finding the data. Providing guidance to students in finding the necessary data may be necessary.

The Slave Narratives web site will act as the primary source of information for the project. Within the site there exists numerous accounts for the students to choose from. It will be imperative that each group document the precise narrative from which they gather their evidence and draw conclusions.

The Documenting the American South web site, though not used in this particular example, provides many more slave narratives as well.


Raw data/information usually has to be manipulated before it can answer any questions. Students might be unaware of how data can best be manipulated, so teacher guidance may be appropriate.

The following is an example of a possible preliminary concept map that students could develop prior to the investigation:

Initial concept map


No result is meaningful unless communicated appropriately. Discussion of findings should be supported. There may or may not be definitive answers to the questions students raised.

Every group will be expected to elaborate upon their initial concept maps answering as many questions as possible, and exploring answers to new questions provoked by the investigation process. Each final concept map could include two additional sections not included in the initial concept map. The first of these sections will show the specific URL's of the narratives used by the students to complete the concept map and should look something like this:

URL concept map component

The second additional section should show the conclusions drawn by the students as the result of analysis and investigation and should look something like this:

conclusions concept map component

The final concept map should include all three sections, and look something like this:

final concept map

Finally, each student could demonstrate conceptualization about the a day in the life of an American slave by composing a fictional diary based on the discoveries found during the web inquiry.

Possible New Questions

Answers often lead to new questions, starting the inquiry cycle over again.

  • Did slavery occur in other countries?
  • How might slavery differ in other countries?
  • How did slavery end?
  • What was slavery like from a master's point of view?
  • Does slavery exist today?