Slavery in the Americas

Beginning in 1619, African men, women, and children were kidnapped from their homeland and shipped in brutal conditions to the American colonies to endure a life of hardship in bondage as slaves. While the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808, slavery continued in America, particularly in the southern states, throughout the 1800s, with four million enslaved men, women, and children by 1860. It took 246 years of resistance by enslaved people and abolitionists, the deaths of 620,000 Americans in the Civil War, and the 13th amendment to finally abolish slavery in 1865. Slavery is an inextricable part of the story of America and it was rooted in racism that still impacts our society today.

Student Activities for Slavery in America

Slavery in America

What is Slavery? When and Where Did Slavery Occur in America?

Slavery is the brutal and immoral condition of a person owning another person as property and denying them their rights as a human being. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, marking the beginning of 246 years of the institution of slavery in America. But slavery existed in every part of what is now the United States for much longer, as it began with the enslavement of indigenous peoples with the arrival of European colonizers. Pre-dating African slavery, indigenous peoples in the Caribbean were enslaved by Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors in 1492. European colonizers like the Spanish, French, Dutch, British, and Russians enslaved indigenous peoples in places like what is now, Alaska, California, the Southwest, New England, the Caribbean, and the Southeast.

Indeed, slavery has existed all over the world in almost every civilization since the beginning of humanity. The sin of slavery is certainly not unique to America. But, the re-telling of America’s history is too often over-simplified. The Founders created a new form of government that would grant its citizens more freedom than their ancestors, a democracy that would inspire the world. And yet, when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal” in 1776, a half million people in the country were enslaved. In order to create a society that truly lives up to the creed “All men (and women) are created equal”, we need to confront the true scope of our history, the positives along with the negatives, the righteous along with the abhorrent, and everything in between. You cannot change your future until you reconcile with the past. Thus, teaching the reality of slavery is not only important to fully understand the story of America, it will inspire us to create a more just society for future generations.

What was the Purpose of Slavery in America?

The purpose for enslaving another human being and continuing the practice for such a long period of time was to make money and create a system of hierarchy which kept white landowners in positions of power. Enslaved people had no human rights. They could be bought, sold, or inherited without the possibility of freedom. They could be beaten and tortured and their enslaver would face no punishments. Families were torn apart with mothers, fathers, and children being sold away to different enslavers never to see one another again. The American colonies and later the United States, created laws that protected, institutionalized, and continued the practice of slavery for almost 250 years. They created laws that ensured that enslavement was based on race. The institution of slavery is rooted in the false and racist idea of white supremacy. It was a method of denying rights to people based on race and ensured that white Christian men remained in the ultimate position of power. The history of these abhorrent and false beliefs in white superiority and the injustice that they engendered continue to negatively impact our society today.

Why Was Slavery so Entrenched in the American Economy?

People who were enslaved were forced to work in a variety of different capacities. They were doing back-breaking work on sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations planting and harvesting crops. They could also be working in homes, shops, and factories. All enslaved people, regardless of their tasks, labored from sun up to down or longer and without pay. They were overseen by their enslavers or task masters who might beat them if they did not work fast enough. Whippings, beatings, and brandings not only physically maimed but also wounded emotionally and spiritually as it dehumanized enslaved people.

While slavery was more entrenched in the South because of its agrarian economy, it was present in every colony and both the South and the North profited financially from slavery and the slave trade. They were huge drivers of economic growth in the colonies. It was not just the Southern plantation owners that gained wealth on the backs of enslaved people. It was also the Northern bankers who invested in plantation land, Northern insurance companies that insured the “property” that was enslaved people, the cotton textile factories that began the industrial revolution in the North using cotton picked in the South, and the merchants and shipping industry. All of these industries and the wealth they accumulated were inextricably linked to the evil of slavery. Besides the crops themselves, the buying, selling, and inheriting of enslaved people was a huge part of the southern economy.

What Were Examples of Resistance?

Throughout the history of slavery, there were people who were opposed to it, believing it to be morally and ethically wrong and unjust. Enslaved people hated being enslaved, fought for their freedom, and resisted their enslavers in a variety of ways. There were armed rebellions like that of Nat Turner, or escapes via the Underground Railroad, in addition to small acts of defiance like purposefully doing a job incorrectly or breaking tools. People might defy their enslavers and secretly learn to read and write, or worship in secret churches. During the time of slavery, African Americans continued to preserve their African cultural traditions while creating new ones. Forming families, creating art, cuisine, music to express both their dreams and their sadness, and relying on faith were all ways to maintain their identity and resist the dehumanization of slavery. Music and art forms such as spirituals, gospel, the blues, and jazz all evolved from the music of enslaved Africans. The contributions of African Americans to our shared culture and history cannot be overstated. African American history is American history.

Other forms of resistance to slavery came from abolitionists, both white and black, who organized and spoke out against slavery and worked to make it illegal. After America declared independence from Great Britain, Vermont became the first state to outlaw slavery in 1777. Many other northern states followed suit. Quakers were among the first to voice their anti-slavery beliefs. The first anti-slavery society was founded in Philadelphia by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1775. Some people, like Thomas Jefferson, actively participated in the practice while at the same time denouncing it. Jefferson, who was the writer of the Declaration of Independence, a Founding Father, and an enslaver who enslaved over 600 human beings in his lifetime, wrote about the institution: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” This reality that justice was at odds with the preservation of the current system resulted in the Civil War.

How did Slavery Finally End?

By 1860, there were four million enslaved people in the United States and they made up one-third of the population of the South. Disagreements about whether to abolish or maintain slavery became so strong that 11 states seceded from the United States to form their own country, the Confederacy, which resulted in the Civil War. Fought between the North and the South, it lasted from 1861 to 1865. The constitution of the Confederacy and every secession document of the states that seceded specified that continuing the practice of slavery was the main reason to secede. After the Civil War, with the Union victorious, the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. This amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially outlawed the formal institution of slavery. Despite this triumph, formerly enslaved people still faced many obstacles. Enduring racism, terrorism against Black communities, and political and economic inequality led to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s a hundred years later. Our nation still wrestles with the legacy of slavery and continues to face challenges of inequality. The fight continues to overcome the injustices of the past and present.

The Underground Railroad

About 100,000 enslaved people escaped their enslavers using the Underground Railroad. Most fled to northern free states and Canada while some fled to Mexico.

The Underground Railroad was not a true railroad. It was a network of safe houses, hiding places, and routes to get enslaved people to northern free states and Canada to escape to freedom. The terms used to describe the routes were a secret code that used railway terms to mean different things. For example:

Code WordsMeaning
Passengers, baggage, and cargo Enslaved people attempting to escape
Conductors, operators, or engineers Guides like Harriet Tubman who assisted runaway enslaved people along the escape routes to freedom.
Stations or DepotsHiding places, meeting points, or safe houses
StockholdersPeople who provided money, food, shelter, and clothing to enslaved people escaping their enslavers
Ticket AgentsPeople who organized and coordinated the escapes
Patty rollers or paddy rollersAgents of enslavers charged with recapturing escaping enslaved people
StationmastersOwners of safe houses meant to hide enslaved people on their escape route.

In these activities, students will learn about the institution of slavery in America by examining its origins and the laws that kept slavery in place for hundreds of years. They will also get an intimate portrait of people who were enslaved, what their lives were like, and how they attempted to resist their enslavers.

Essential Questions for Slavery in America

  1. How did slavery develop in the United States and what is its lasting impact?
  2. What was life like for someone who was enslaved?
  3. How did people who were enslaved resist their enslavers and fight for freedom?

Additional Information & Activities

Some of these activities and lesson plans were designed for older students, but can serve as great resources for teachers. Activities can be adapted to fit the needs of elementary school students.

Find more lesson plans and activities like these in our Social Studies Category!
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