Lesson Plan

“Journey from Slavery to Stateman”: The Homes of Frederick Douglass

Cedar Hill

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.1, 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10, 11-12.RH.1, 11-12.RH.2, 11-12.RH.3, 11-12.RH.4, 11-12.RH.5, 11-12.RH.6, 11-12.RH.7, 11-12.RH.8, 11-12.RH.9, 11-12.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 4 Standard 2D: Students understand the growth of “the peculiar institution” after 1800 and the varied experiences of African Americans and slavery.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies.
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

How is freedom linked to place?


1. To locate Douglass’s successive homes and describe his life at each.
2. To compare the status of an enslaved person, a prosperous free man, and an American statesman in antebellum America, using Douglass as a case study.
3. To explain the Underground Railroad and describe the risks and obstacles to a successful escape from slavery and adjustments to a life of freedom.
4. To seek examples of injustice in their community and to provide possible solutions.
5. To write a short autobiography.


Sobbing, the small boy watched his grandmother walk away. Under orders, she had just brought the enslaved child to their master's house at Wye Plantation and left him there. Born ca. 1818 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Frederick Douglass never knew who his father was and only saw his mother a few times in his life. Brought up by his grandmother in a small cabin, he gradually realized his enslaved condition; but, he did not live it until his grandmother brought him to the home of his master that day.

Like others, Frederick Douglass yearned for freedom. As a teenager, he made his first escape by canoe, but was caught and returned. He finally escaped in 1838, dressed in a sailor's clothes and using the pass of a free black man. He adopted a new name, married his sweetheart, and began a new life in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Over time, Douglass developed impressive speaking skills, giving stirring and fiery speeches. He became a traveling lecturer both in the U.S. and abroad. Douglass also became a journalist, founding a newspaper, The North Star. Remembering his own flight from slavery, he aided other freedom seekers. He became a leader who advised Abraham Lincoln. Douglass was appointed a United States marshal in 1877 and soon afterward purchased the Cedar Hill estate in Washington, DC. In 1881, he served as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia in 1881. He also served as the U.S. minister to Haiti under President Harrison. Douglass remained an advocate of social justice throughout his life, and died a respected statesman at Cedar Hill in 1895. He was the author of many speeches, articles, and three autobiographies.

By examining Douglass's life and three of his homes, students will discover how Douglass grew from an enslaved youth to an empowered and empowering statesman.

Lesson Hook/Preview

The use of African Americans for enslaved labor began as early as the 16th century in Spanish Florida. Slavery was legal in the United States until the adoption of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865. Throughout the history of slavery in the United States, escape by enslaved men and women, known as "freedom seekers," has been a constant form of resistance. These men and women fled their enslavement not only to obtain freedom, but to avoid the physical and emotional pain inflicted from abuse, separation from families, and the hardship of daily life. Their escapes represented a rejection of their imposed status of enslavement.

In the early 19th century, the economies of the North and South began to go in different directions; the South found slavery more profitable while the North did not. As enslaved labor began to decline in the North, northern states abolished the institution and became a refuge for freedom seekers. Individually or in small groups, a small percentage of those enslaved continued to escape, worrying slaveholders who feared other slaves would follow their example. The Nat Turner Revolt in Virginia (1831) frightened slaveholders who then tightened restrictions on both free and enslaved blacks. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, southerners continued to enslave about 4,000,000 African Americans.

Determined to attain their freedom, the enslaved escaped however they could. Freedom seekers began going to free settlements in mountains or swamps, or in Spanish Florida, where Native American communities welcomed them. Routes for evading slave catchers included going overland or by water. Disguises and forgeries of travel papers were a part of their strategies. Freedom seekers passed as free, blending into free black populations in large cities. Some even mailed themselves to Philadelphia in boxes or stowed away on ships.

People of conscience aided freedom seekers in need, forming black and white networks and vigilance committees. Biracial cooperation took place with the assistance of various religious groups (to name a few, Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians). People who had moral objections to slavery and were politicized by their beliefs became known as abolitionists. Abolitionists were not afraid to use all means of communication to sway public opinion. William Lloyd Garrison started the first abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, and antislavery societies organized lectures and petitions. While the abolitionists worked to convince their communities about the evils of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law Act of 1850 granted southern slave owners more legal reach into the North. Life was better for freedom seekers in the North but threat of lawful recapture meant they were not entirely free. Some runaways were driven to run to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Europe.

Throughout the 1850s, tension over slavery in the new western territories and states became an increasingly contentious political issue. In 1859, John Brown raided Harper's Ferry to take control of the armory to arm the enslaved to free the South. With this event, the country passed the point of compromise. For the South, Lincoln's election in 1860 proclaimed the North's unwillingness to compromise on the expansion of slavery. Lincoln's opposition to the institution made it clear that he would not support southern arguments. South Carolina became the first state to secede. It led the attack on the United States at Fort Sumter in 1861, starting the Civil War. During the war, Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation enabled African Americans, enslaved and free, to enlist to fight.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


13th Amendment
Nat Turner Revolt
John Brown Raid at Harper's Ferry
Fugitive Slave Law

Additional Resources

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park Service. The park's website contains numerous resources to learn about Frederick Douglass and his home, Cedar Hill, in Washington, DC. One of those resources is a virtual tour of his home.

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park is a unit of the National Park Service. The park's website offers a variety of resources discussing the history of New Bedford and its whaling history. Included on the site is an online tour of the community that includes the home of Nathan and Polly Johnson.

TwHP Feature: African American History
This collection of Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans examine various aspects of African American history in the United States, such as "Free Frank" McWorter's New PhiladelphiaDr. Manassa T. Pope and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Aboard the Underground Railroad Travel Itinerary
The Discover Our Shared Heritage online travel itinerary on the Underground Railroad provides a history of the most well known escape system in the U.S. before the Civil War. Are any of the places listed in your state?

Washington, DC, Travel Itinerary
The Discover Our Shared Heritage online travel itinerary on Washington, DC, contains a write-up on Douglass's home, Cedar Hill.

Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary
The Discover Our Shared Heritage online travel itinerary on America's diverse cultural groups in the United States includes the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (Cedar Hill) in Washington, DC.

Nathan and Polly Johnson House
For more information on Nathan and Polly Johnson in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the New Bedford Historical Society offers information about their home and abolitionist beliefs.

Frederick Douglass Home on Alexander Street
This history of Douglass's home in Rochester, New York covers his role in the Underground Railroad and his experience living in a place where many people were initially hostile to him.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress holds a number of Frederick Douglass's papers. The site also offers suggestions for critical thinking and arts and humanities activities. The Library of Congress also has a collection of Frederick Douglass: Online Resources that offers a variety of links to content, activities, exhibits, photos, and other resources discussing Douglass.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The library at UNC Chapel Hill offers digital copies of slave narratives in their "Documenting the Old South" online collection. Included in this collection are the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

For Further Reading
For more about Frederick Douglass, check out his three autobiographies. These can be accessed online at the UNC Chapel Hill library: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

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Last updated: October 15, 2018