DPLA in the Classroom: Resources on Slavery in the U.S.

By Naomi Forman, July 24, 2014.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am an eighth grade Language Arts teacher working at the DPLA this summer, researching ways the DPLA is useful for instructors and students alike. My exploration of Japanese Internment revealed how the DPLA’s wealth of primary sources can help engage students and promote deeper understanding. In this post, I will examine resources related to a different period of American history – Slavery in the U.S. These texts and images may be useful to Social Studies classes focusing on the antebellum period, or to Language Arts classes reading slavery-related texts (e.g. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, etc.) For purposes of clarity, I’ve organized my discussion into four sections: the experiences and perspectives of slaves themselves; fugitive slaves; abolitionism; and government response.

The Enslaved Experience

Drawing of slaves being sold by white masters in Virginia.

Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia. Courtesy The New York Public Library.

Getting students to empathize with victims of slavery could seem a daunting task, as the period may immediately feel too foreign or cruel for middle or high school students to imagine. However, by presenting the slave story through a variety of media, including drawings, paintings, and personal accounts, teachers can begin to bring slaves’ perspectives and experiences to life. Drawings like this one, for instance, of a family being showcased and sold like cattle, reveal how slaves were dehumanized and often helpless. Images in this anti-slavery children’s book, of slaves being sold, whipped, and chased with torches, further reveal how owners tried to strip victims of agency and dignity. Teachers might encourage students to compare this book to those from their own childhood, and imagine how even goods marketed to children can become politicized. Students could also examine this oil painting of a man in shackles in order to infer an overall mood of the period; the man’s stooped position and pained stare powerfully illustrate his sense of entrapment.

The DPLA’s text-based resources on slaves’ experiences include these firsthand accounts, which paint a brutal and honest picture of how slaveholders treated women. Additionally, the DPLA contains links to important slave narratives, including Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and William Henry Singleton’s Recollections of My Slavery Days. Students will likely appreciate these individual tales of struggle and triumph, as many feel most connected to history when it’s presented through personal stories.

Fugitive Slaves

As part of a unit on slavery, teachers might be interested in incorporating information on runaway slaves and their pursuers. After examining the text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law that required escaped slaves to be returned to their masters, students could consider how this act broadened the slavery’s impact: escaped slaves now feared for their future, while previously uninvolved northerners were forced to either return captured slaves or break the law. These ads, showing pictures of runaway slaves and offering rewards for their capture, may remind students, sadly, of today’s ads for missing pets, and dramatically reveal how people were viewed as property. Students interested in hearing a fugitive slave’s perspective would appreciate this account, detailing one man’s thought process as he finds places to hide. Lastly, this image, depicting soldiers returning captured slaves among angry onlookers in Boston, reveals the passionate public reaction in certain cities.

Advertisement for a runaway slave, describing the slave and offering a reward.

Runaway slave advertisement. Courtesy The New York Public Library.

Two runaway slaves, Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims, being returned to slavery through the streets of Boston.

The runaway slaves, Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims, returned to slavery. Courtesy The New York Public Library.


After learning about slaves, fugitives, and the injustice they experienced, students will surely feel inspired by the abolitionist movement. One poster to share announces a vehement anti-slavery stance, while another one proclaims that the institution is not religiously sound. Teachers might also be interested in this advertisement for a rally in Massachusetts, where famous abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau spoke. Students may enjoy reading this anti-slavery acrostic, the “Alphabet of Slavery,” which details the evils of slavery through memorable rhymes. Other unique resources include this “Moral Map of the U.S.,” which depicts slavery as a dark, immoral mark on our country. The DPLA also provides access to documents revealing women’s active involvement in the abolitionist movement. For example, this 1864 address from the Women’s National League, signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, articulates a clear and powerful message: “While slavery exists anywhere, there can be freedom nowhere.”

Broadside advertising a Fourth of July rally sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1854.

Advertisement for anti-slavery rally, 1854. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society via Digital Commonwealth.

Alphabet of slavery - anti-slavery acrostic

Alphabet of slavery. Courtesy The New York Public Library.

"Moral Map of U.S., Jan. 1837" with slavery states darkened.

“Moral Map of U.S., Jan. 1837. Slavery is a dark spot on the face of the nation.” Courtesy The New York Public Library

Government Response

Finally, units on slavery might culminate with a discussion of how the U.S. government abolished slavery once and for all. Students can read President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the freedom of slaves in rebellion states. This next document includes the text of the Thirteenth Amendment that followed, outlawing slavery completely.

The DPLA’s primary sources related to slavery in America are numerous, informative, and powerful. The variety of resources – including texts, songs, maps, and storybooks – promises to reach students with a range of learning styles and interests. I hope that this post helps teachers present a vivid and accurate picture of slavery, and brings students a deeper understanding of this dark period in our past.

Cover image: “The child’s anti-slavery book: containing a few words about American slave children and stories of slave life.” Courtesy The New York Public Library.

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