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The Transatlantic Slave Trade
A Nation of Nations Lesson Plan: Charting African Ethnicities in America
This lesson focuses on the "Ethnicities in the United States" segment of the narrative, The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Combining history and math skills, the activity assists visual learners in understanding the variety in ethnic origins of enslaved Africans brought to the United States. Students will use the data in the narrative to create charts, either by hand or by using Excel or a similar database program. Students then will use the charts to compare ethnicities in the lowlands and tidewater regions. They also will hypothesize about cultural remnants that historical archaeology, cultural anthropology, and/or census records may be able to confirm.
Grade Levels:High School, grades 9-12
For use with:The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture's narrative, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, and digital exhibition, The African Presence in America: 1492-1992
Concentration Area:Social Studies: Sociology
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • Characteristics of Western African societies, such as Mali, Songhai and Benin, in the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., the economic importance of the trans-Saharan slave trade; the response of African states to early European coastal trading and raiding; general features of family organization, labor division, agriculture, manufacturing, and trade).
  • Elements of slavery in the American colonies in the 17th century (e.g., the emergence of chattel slavery in Virginia and Maryland; reasons free labor and chattel slavery did not provide an alternative for labor in the Chesapeake colonies before 1675).
  • Contributions of African slaves to economic development in the Americas (e.g. rice cultivation and cattle raising in South Carolina) and the transmission of African cultural heritage (e.g. through religious practices, dances, and work songs).
Time required
Approximately one 50-minute class period, depending on the amount of outside reading, accessibility of media center, or local records research assigned.
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  1. Go to the Schomburg online exhibit The African Presence in America 1492-1992 at: Print out and make a transparency or class set of the chart showing the distribution of "African slaves in the Americas during the Atlantic Trade, 1450-1870" that is based on information contained in The African Slave Trade by Philip Curtin.

    Have students count the number of modern nations to which enslaved Africans were brought. Then, ask them:

    1. To which nation were more Africans transported than any other?
    2. To which region (North American, Caribbean, or South America) were more Africans transported than any other?
  2. Finally, have students hypothesize why North America was the least common destination.
  3. Explain that, while this chart shows the dispersal of the people of Africa across the Americas, it doesn't show their geographic or ethnic origins in Africa. Ask students to hypothesize whether they think that the Africans transported to North America had the same origins as those transported to the Caribbean and South America, and why.

  1. Direct students to read the "Ethnicities in the United States" segment of the narrative, The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Discuss the segment with the students so that they are clear about the following eight regions from which Africans were transported to what became the United States:

    1. West Central Africa (northern Angola, Zaire, and Congo): home to the Bantu (speaking Kikongo and Kimbundu) and others.
    2. Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia), and Mali --home to Muslim Mandingo, Wolof and Fulani, and others.
    3. The Gold Coast (Ghana): home to the Ewe, Ga, Fante, Asante, and others.
    4. Sierra Leone: home to the Temne, Mende, Kisi, and Kru.
    5. The Bight of Biafra (Eastern Nigeria and Cameroon): home to Igbo, Ibibio, and others.
    6. The Windward Coast (Liberia and Ivory Coast): home to Gola, Vai, Baoule, Dan and others.
    7. Bight of Benin and South East Africa
  2. Ask students to create two bar, line, or pie charts, each one reflecting the information for the following:

    1. First paragraph about ethnicities in the lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia.
    2. Second paragraph about ethnicities in the Maryland-Virginia tidewater region.
  3. Once the charts are completed, ask students to compare and contrast the two charts, discussing which African ethnic groups were dominant in each region.
  4. The Gullah people of the southeastern lowlands have been the focus of recent studies by cultural anthropologists, historical archaeologists, linguists, folklorists, geneticists and others who have examined their impact on rice cultivation, cattle raising practices, language, religious practices, naming patterns, folk tales, music and song, as well as material remnants such as tools, pottery, and baskets. Students may collect examples for either the Gullah or other groups (if they can find sufficient material) to illustrate how they have maintained some aspects of their African ethnic identity in America over a period of 400 years.
1. Ask students to select a location either in the tidewater or low country and ask them to develop the following:

  • Hypotheses about which African ethnic groups probably lived there in the past; and
  • "History detectives'" checklists of artifacts, historical records, oral traditions, language remnants, and religious-cultural continuations that might help them to confirm their hypothesis.
  • 2. Evaluate work on a five-point scale (which may be multiplied for weighting) or five letter-grade rubric as follows:
    Grading Elements Points/Grade
    No response 0/F
    Response does not include both hypothesis and checklist; shows little insight; offers few ideas of a very general nature; and has many technical problems 1/D
    Response includes both hypothesis and checklist; shows some insight; provides only general categories of resources; and writing has some technical problems 2/C
    Response includes both hypothesis and checklist; shows some insight; provides a some specific sources and other general ones; and demonstrates most technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 3/B
    Response includes both hypothesis and checklist; shows originality and insight; provides specific examples of sources on checklist; and demonstrates technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 4/A

    Related Works

  • The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture maintains a digital exhibition, The African Presence in America: 1492-1992, which includes maps, charts, and print and still picture images that reflect the ethnic diversity of Africans in America. The support materials include a general bibliography, children's bibliography, teacher resources, and a timeline.
  • For an overview of migration and additional statistics, go to:
  • To view an image from the introductory section illustrating the diversity of African groups brought to America, go to:
  • Interdisciplinary Links

  • Language Arts/English: The English language has a history of absorbing non-English words. Ask students to create a list of words used in English whose origins are African. If students have good access to information, the teacher may decide to make the list specific to particular ethnic groups (such as the Gullah) or religious groups (such as Muslim).
  • Music: Modern American music owes much to African music tradition. Ask students to find examples of African influences in modern music as reflected by: instruments, form (call and response, litany, additional), rhythm, scale and pitch, vocal style and ornamentation, and tone color.
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