Teaching American Slavery Through Inquiry

August 20, 1619 is recognized as the date when 20 enslaved Africans arrived at Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. This month, C3 Teachers is featuring inquiries on the topic of slavery. This month we are providing you with resources for teaching about slavery. On C3teachers.org you’ll find that our Featured Inquiries focus on to the topic slavery and enslavement. Some of these inquiries were part of Teaching American Slavery Through Inquiry, a co-publication with Teaching Tolerance.

When learning about slavery, we ask much of students. The complexity of slavery requires careful study. As A Framework for Teaching American Slavery points out: Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and, later, the United States.” Understanding the far-reaching and overlapping effects of slavery and white supremacy demands deep engagement on the part of students, a type of engagement that inquiry is well suited to support. The irreducible evil of slavery, matched by the realization that “enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities,” may be hard for students to understand. It’s equally hard to believe that slavery and white supremacy could have been such a fundamental part of the American experience and perhaps even more difficult for students to comprehend the long shadow of slavery and white supremacy on the present. Inquiry provides structure for students to make sense of it all. When confused, we ask questions, and when students ask questions, we are obliged to help them find answers by “wrestling with the conditions of the problem.” IDM, with its focus on questions, tasks and sources, provides a structure for this natural desire to inquire. Questions emerge when students are perplexed, tasks help students take on the complexity of the problem in bite-size pieces, and sources spark students’ interests and open avenues to deepen knowledge of content. When we use inquiry to help students understand slavery and white supremacy, we are drawing on what is best about social studies. Our capacity to take on the most challenging of topics—topics such as slavery and white supremacy—makes us better as learners, teachers and citizens.

List of Inquiries

What did freedom mean for Anna?

In November of 1815, an enslaved woman known only as Anna jumped out of a third floor window in Washington DC in what was assumed to be a suicide attempt. Presumed dead, abolitionists used her story to expose the harsh realities of slavery and advocate for better treatment of slaves. In 2015, the Oh Say Can You See research project uncovered an 1828 petition for freedom from an Ann Williams for herself and three children. This woman was the same “Anna” who had leapt from the window, still alive but severely injured from her fall, a contrast to the widely held belief that she had died in the fall. In 1832, a jury ruled in her favor, granting Ann and her three children freedom from master George Williams. Ann and her children went on to live free in Washington, subsisting on the weekly $1.50 that Ann’s still enslaved husband was able to provide for his family. This inquiry and the compelling question seeks to address the autonomy that enslaved African Americans had, and the question of what freedom meant to Anna.

How Did Slavery Shape My State?

This inquiry leads students through an investigation of the influence of slavery on the history of individual states, particularly highlighting Kentucky. (The blueprint for this inquiry was purposefully written so as to allow for other states or regions to adapt it to their local particulars.) By investigating the compelling question–How did slavery shape my state?–students examine the growth and development of slavery, the ways in which the slave system differed from place to place, the violence endured by slaves, and how this portion of the country’s history is (or isn’t) being remembered. By completing this inquiry, students will begin to understand how slavery had a significant impact on the development of the country and their particular region, while also have them consider the extent to which historical memory is appropriately reflecting its impact.

How Did Sugar Feed Slavery?

This inquiry provides students with an opportunity to evaluate the relationship between the dramatic increase in European sugar consumption in the 18th and 19th centuries and the reliance on the labor of enslaved persons to produce sugar in the Western Hemisphere. In examining the compelling question–“How did sugar feed slavery?” students explore the environmental, economic, and social consequences of increased sugar production. Students work with featured sources focused on sugar production and the treatment of enslaved workers on sugar plantations. The goal of this inquiry is to provide students with an opportunity to examine the human costs of consumer behaviors through the historical example of sugar production in the Western Hemisphere. Such knowledge may help students as they make economic decisions of their own.

Can Words Lead to War?

This seventh grade annotated inquiry provides students with an opportunity to explore how words affect public opinion through an examination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students will investigate historical sources related to the novel and reactions in the North and South in order to address the compelling question, “Can words lead to war?” This query takes advantage of the mixed messages students often receive about the power of words. Students’ understanding about how words can make a difference is often grounded in discussions of words used to bully, instead of the power of words to encourage reform.

Does It Matter Who Ended Slavery?

The goal of this inquiry is to introduce students to historiography as they wrestle with historical significance within the context of a historical controversy. The common narrative about the end of slavery has given credit to President Abraham Lincoln, who earned the nickname “The Great Emancipator.” However, over the past 30 years, many scholars have sought to revise this narrative, with a critical mass now arguing that the slaves freed themselves. Students look at the laws that emancipated certain slaves over time and then examine the arguments contemporary historians have made about who was responsible for freeing the slaves. This inquiry invites students to engage with the actual historical debate, but rather than focusing on the veracity of claims, students concentrate on the significance of the issues behind the claims. By looking at the controversy about who freed the slaves, students should understand why this issue matters 150 years later. It is important to note that, in their contrasting interpretations, scholars do not really disagree on the facts of emancipation, but rather on the interpretation of those facts. This crucial difference is key to helping students engage in what it means to think and act like historians.

Did the Constitution Establish a Just Government?

The goal of this inquiry is for students to gain an informed, critical perspective on the United States Constitution as it stood at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By investigating the justness of the Constitution, students examine how the Constitution structures the government, the Constitution’s relationship to slavery, and the extent to which the amendment process makes the government more democratic. Through taking a critical look at the Constitution, students should understand the government the Constitution created and develop an evidence-based perspective that serves as a launching pad for informed action