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The Domestic Slave Trade
Raw History Lesson Plan: Using Primary Sources
The narrative Domestic Slave Trade refers to a tremendous number of primary sources, especially in the segments "Exporters and Importers," " Slave Traders," and "National Debate." Likewise, the narrative Runaway Journeys also uses many primary sources, especially the sections, "Peaks of Migration," "Profile of the Fugitives," "Maroon Communities," and "Going West and South." In this lesson, students examine primary sources, the ingredients from which history is written, by analyzing primary sources, identifying collections of primary sources, recognizing accessibility and legibility problems, and considering limitations, reliability issues, bias, and prejudice in documents.
Grade Levels: Middle school, grades 6-8
For use with:The Domestic Slave Trade, Runaway Journeys
Concentration Area:History
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

  • The ways slavery shaped social and economic life in the South after 1800 (e.g., the cotton gin and the opening of new lands in the South and West led to increased demands for slaves; differences in the lives of plantation owners, poor free black and white families, and slaves; methods of passive and active resistance to slavery; escaped slaves and the Underground Railroad).
  • Different economic, cultural, and social characteristics of slavery after 1800 (e.g., the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the ending of the Atlantic slave trade; how slaves forged their own culture in the face of oppression; the role of the plantation system in shaping slaveholders and the enslaved; the experiences of escaped slaves).
Time required
One 50-minute class period, if students read the narrative outside of class
Materials needed
  • The narratives:
  • Primary sources, such as:

    • Oral histories, letters, diaries, family Bible entries, land certificates, military service records, immigration documents, and passports
    • Newspaper editorials, illustrations, and advertising Government, ecclesiastical, and business records
    • Photographs
    • Drawings and posters
    • Sheet music and lyrics
    • Artifacts
    • Historic structures and monuments
    • Maps
  • Primary Source Worksheet
Anticipatory Set

  • Primary sources reflect the sensibilities and often the prejudices of the era in which they were created. Accordingly, some will contain offensive language, descriptions of graphic violence or sexual situations, or physical stereotypes. Read documents through (letters, journals, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) ex-slave narratives, for example) and examine political cartoons' captioning and depictions to determine if their use is consistent with your school district's guidelines, appropriate for meeting the educational goals of a unit of study, and suitable for the maturity level of your students.
  • To prepare for this lesson, identify 15-30 primary sources (enough for each student or pairs of students) that pertain to slavery in the United States. Textbooks may contain some documents, particularly as illustrations; but you also may locate other documents in print, on CD-ROM, or through online collections. See Related Works for suggestions. In addition, artifacts and documents from local historical societies or genealogy groups, cemeteries or monuments, and historic homes may contribute information specific to the community.
  • Ideally, students should work with photocopies, digital images, or facsimiles of documents rather than transcriptions. All documents need to be legible and clear so that students will be able to retrieve the information you want them to get from the document. Be sure to double-check that students can enlarge online "thumbnail" images without degrading them into illegible pixels. Feel free to adapt the Primary Source Worksheet if questions are unanswerable or to emphasize the content of the sources collected.
    1. Review with students the definition of a primary source: "anything serving as a proof of or recording a past event (printed, written, visual imagery, or sound), including eyewitness accounts, documents, and artifacts."
    2. Divide the class in sections and ask each section to read one of the following segments of The Domestic Slave Trade narrative: "Exporters and Importers," "Modes of Transportation," "Slave Traders," or "National Debate."

      For Runaway Journeys, the sections are: "Peaks of Migration," "Profile of the Fugitives," "Maroon Communities," or "Going West and South." As they read the segment, have students jot down types of primary sources that historians rely upon to document the migrations that are mentioned in the segment.
    3. Record on the chalkboard, a flipchart, or a transparency a list of primary sources based on what the students have found in the narrative, including the following:

      1. advertisements
      2. convention notes or journals
      3. letters
      4. petitions
      5. census data—occupational descriptions
      6. business documents such as traders' bill of sales
      7. court records
      8. magazines
      9. obituaries
      10. newspaper editorials
      11. legislation
      12. ships' manifests
      Note: Novels, news stories compiled from wire services as opposed to on-the-scene reporting, county histories, and biographical directories are not typically considered primary sources, except as reflective of the language, social standards, and information-sharing of the era in which they were created.

    1. Explain to students that they will be examining primary sources for themselves, so they will have a chance to work with the raw material that historians turn into textbooks, essays, and exhibits.
    2. Provide students with a primary source and the Primary Source Worksheet. If you prefer, you may use the generic worksheets created by the National Archives for specific document types (see Related Works).
    3. Direct students to examine their primary source and complete the Primary Source Worksheet within about a half of the class period.
    4. Ask all students to separate into groups consisting of those who had:

      1. Written primary sources (of any type);
      2. Artifacts, buildings, or monuments;
      3. Photographs, posters, illustrations or other artwork; and
      All other students will form a final group.
    5. Direct students in each group to select a group recorder who will complete a summary report answering the following questions:

      1. What types of primary sources did your group members share?
      2. What time range did the primary sources cover?
      3. What evidence did these sources provide about slavery in America?
      4. Were the primary sources generally reliable?
    6. Instruct group members to share information with each other about their primary sources as the group recorder pulls together a summary report. Allow students about one-third of the class period to complete their sharing activity.
    7. Have each recorder share his/her group's summary report with the whole class.

    Assess the Primary Source Worksheet on a ten-point scale, which can be multiplied by ten to convert to letter grade, according to the rubric below:

    Primary Source Worksheet Grading Criteria Total Points
    Contains specific, clear references to the primary source; complete analysis, and insightful interpretation 10
    Contains some specific references to the primary source; nearly complete analysis, and good interpretation; may misinterpret one element of the primary source 9-8
    Contains a few references to the primary source; attempts some analysis and interpretation; may misinterpret some historical elements 7-6
    Contains rare references to the primary source; little or no attempt at analysis or interpretation; many misinterpretations of historical elements 5-1
    Student did not attempt the assignment 0

    Related Works

    • The Schomburg Center's Images of Nineteenth Century African Americans includes an online digital collection of depictions of slavery at: Additional images are available at the Schomburg Center's online exhibition, The African Presence in the Americas 1492-1992:
    • The Digital Classroom of the National Archives provides not only Federal documents, but also background information and lesson plans. Generic worksheets that may be adapted to a particular document are available for written documents, photographs, political cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, sound recordings, and motion pictures. They can be accessed at:
    • The Library of Congress' American Memory Collection features over seven million online digital documents. It is a rich resource for a wide variety of documents about the African-American experience, including the online exhibit African-American Odyssey. American Memory's homepage is: and African-American Odyssey is at: The segment on "Western Migration and Homesteading" can be accessed at:
    • Jackdaw Publication's Slavery in America kit includes a nice assortment of facsimiles, including a letter written by a slave, a bill of sale, and a petition to free a slave. To find a complete list of documents, go to:
    Interdisciplinary Links

    • Language Arts: Students may wish to collaborate with the Social Studies, Art and/or Language Arts departments or teachers to mount the documents into a formal exhibit. Language Arts students will need to think about an introductory text for beginning of the exhibition, captions for each document in the display, and any other explanatory text or signage (directing visitors through the exhibit) that may be necessary. Students will be writing for the general public, so the text should be free of technical errors (i.e., spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization errors), and the narrative should be clear, interesting, and informative. Students also will work with the Social Studies contact to confirm the text content's historical accuracy.
    • Art/Graphic Design: Students may wish to collaborate with the Social Studies, Art and/or Language Arts departments or teachers to mount the documents into a formal exhibit. Art/Graphic Design students will need to consider the most attractive and effective way to present the documents, making sure they also account for the height, font size, and contrast of text so that it will be legible for the general public. Their challenge will be to enhance the primary sources without distracting from them.
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