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Inquiry Question

Historical Context




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Putting It All Together

By looking at "Journey from Slavery to Statesman:" The Homes of Frederick Douglass, students can more easily understand the various experiences of being an African American from the early to the late 19th century. The following activities will provide students with an opportunity to better comprehend the different experiences of enslavement and freedom and the lingering prejudices that remained after the Civil War.

Activity 1: The Life and Times of Me
Frederick Douglass's early autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass (1845), amazed readers. It portrayed the horrors of slavery in evocative language, in a manner not expected from a newly freed man. It starts from his birth and continues through his escape to a new life. To include the rest of his life he later wrote two further autobiographies-My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). His autobiographies emphasize the American values of hard work, education, and freedom. His long life encompassed slavery, the Civil War, and the difficult years after the Civil War when it was clear that African Americans were second-class citizens. Parts of the readings in this lesson plan come from his autobiographies.

Have students read a chapter or two from one of Douglass's autobiographies (these can be found online through a variety of sources). Then ask students to write a couple pages of their own autobiographies. First, have each student create a timeline of important events in his or her life. Next, have them think about what values are important to them in their lives. What values do they think they represent? What events in the community and in the world coincided with the important events in their lives? If possible, have students interview an author in the community to learn about the skills needed to write a book. Ask students to read their autobiographies to the class. Hold a class discussion about how events classmates have shared have had similar or different meaning among the students.

Activity 2: The Great Orator
Frederick Douglass was a famous speaker. He taught himself by reading a book of speeches, the Columbian Orator, over and over again. He practiced whenever he could once he lived in Baltimore and could come and go from his caretaker's house. He continued to practice when he lived in New Bedford. He was asked to go to Nantucket to talk about his experiences of slavery. It was his first abolitionist speech, but it so impressed the audience that he was offered a job as a traveling orator.

Have students learn part of a Frederick Douglass speech and recite it in class. Several examples of Douglass's speeches can be found at this Frederick Douglass website and his "Independence Day Speech at Rochester" can be found at this PBS website. Ask students to choose their favorite excerpt and explain why. Next, have students think about an event in their life that made a difference to them and write a short speech about why it was important. Have students deliver the speech to their classmates as if they do not have shared experiences. When choosing an event, students should provide context for their experience. Based on the scale of the event, students should explain what was going on in the community at the time (local, state, national, international). What external factors influenced their experience? What internal factors influenced their experience? How did the event make them feel? Were those feelings shared in the community? Was there anything that made their experience unique? Geography? Beliefs? Age? Gender? Ethnicity? Once everyone has presented, hold a class discussion highlighting how people can experience similar things in different ways based on various factors.

Activity 3: Traveling the Underground Railroad
To present students with a more personal understanding of the Underground Railroad, divide them into groups to read one of the slave narratives listed below. Have groups divide up the reading. As students read, have them trace the route that the freedom seeker took. Have students compare the maps from different slave narratives. How did the freedom seekers show resourcefulness and courage? Did anyone help him or her? Who was it? What became of the freedom seekers after the Civil War? Are their homes preserved or is there a marker or statue by which to remember them? If there is not a marker, what would you put on a historic marker or statue to commemorate this person? Where would you place it? Check the National Underground Railroad website and the National Register of Historic Places website to see if there is a site associated with that person in those databases.

Have students create an exhibit using the information found in the slave narrative. Display the exhibits around the classroom and ask each team to explain its exhibit to their classmates. You might even consider displaying the exhibits in the school library or auditorium and arranging for the students to present their findings to other classes.

For narratives, see "Documenting the American South: Slave Narratives" website, especially:

  • Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb an American Slave Written by Himself (1849) [love story]
  • Henry "Box" Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written By Himself (1851) [mailed himself in a box] – sculpture at Riverwalk in Richmond
  • William Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860) [disguised] – hidden at the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House in Boston, MA (Boston African American National Historic Site)
  • Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada as Narrated By Himself (1849) [Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was said to be based on him]—Josiah Henson Park
  • William Parker, The Freedman's Story in Two Parts (1851) [involved in a shootout] – National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites in Christiana, PA
  • James W. C. Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States (1849) [became an important abolitionist minister]—private home on National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
  • John Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage and His Providential Escape. Written By Himself (1856) [became a whaler]

Activity 4: Slavery All Over
Slavery was a thorny problem. Federal and state laws did not prohibit slavery even in 1860. Have students research laws about slavery in their state. When did it end? Have students consider the situation of a slave owner anywhere in the South. He or she invested money in enslaved labor and depended on selling agricultural crops to the North or to Europe. Because the slave owner could sell his human property, the slave trade flourished. Northern cotton mills, insurance companies, and banks profited from slavery. Abolitionists, a minority of the population, were against slavery on moral grounds. They suggested several solutions, none of which was adequate to deal with the problem of compensating the slave owners, restructuring the economy based on slavery, and helping four million new freedmen. Liberal slave owners suggested colonization of freedmen outside the United States in Liberia or Haiti. Some abolitionists advocated immediate emancipation (ultimately done by the 13th Amendment), some compensated emancipation (as in Washington, DC), and some gradual emancipation (as enacted in northern states). Some were opposed to breaking the law, and some were in favor of helping freedom seekers in spite of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Some even were in favor of violence (like John Brown).

Divide students into groups to research various early 19th century solutions for slavery. Ask each group to report to the class. Then hold a class discussion on the pros and cons of each argument. How did their "solution" compare with Douglass's attitudes about slavery? Can students think of a solution that was not created at the time? Have students address the long-term and short-term consequences of each option. Do students think there was any other option aside from going to war? Why or why not?

Activity 5: Modern Injustice
Slavery may have been ended with the Civil War but other great social injustices in society continued or came about later. Have students search for an example of social injustice in their community (past or present). Have students search popular media outlets for discussion of their issue. How is it portrayed? Does it seem important to people? Have students survey friends and family members and make a chart of their responses. How do most people react to this issue? How do the reactions of people today to social injustices compare to the reaction to slavery of Douglass and fellow activists? Do people have suggestions for solutions? Have students come up with some of their own solutions. Are there any local organizations where students can volunteer to help solve the modern problems? Have students consider a modern injustice like homelessness or inequality of health care and consider volunteer work to address the problem. If possible, have students interview a local official about the problem. What suggestions does the official have for addressing the problem? Were they aware of its history? If the issue is not receiving a lot of attention, have the official explain why certain issues take precedent over others. Students should write a report about their findings and submit it to the local archive or library.


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