Teaching about Slavery

Signs for Plantation Life children's program at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. This section of the program focused on Lowcountry African American history during the Revolutionary War.

Mary Battle, signs for children’s education program at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. This section of the program focused on slavery during the Revolutionary War.

Fully grasping the experiences and perspectives of enslaved African Americans is challenging in the present. I’ve studied the history of slavery throughout my academic career, and continue to appreciate that the complexity and struggles of enslaved experiences will always be beyond my contemporary understanding. Ownership over my own body, labor, and mobility is too deeply engrained as a given in my life.

But recognizing this limitation does not mean that imagining slavery cannot help us develop empathy for the struggles of enslaved African Americans. Imagining can also be a productive teaching tool, even for children.

I was early in my graduate career when I first heard a professor explain that American victory at the end of the Revolutionary War was not a celebration for African Americans. The turmoil of that war provided opportunities for change if you are an enslaved person. As Eric Foner noted in the lecture I described in my last post, military emancipation occurred throughout the history of slavery. Enemies freeing the slaves of their enemies was an effective war strategy, and the British certainly used it during the Revolutionary War, particularly in the Lowcountry. For example in 1782, British forces included more than 5,000 enslaved people in their evacuation from Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston. Scholars estimate that as many as 30,000 African Americans in South Carolina attempted to join British forces to escape slavery during the war. The British sold many back into bondage, but those who left with the 1782 evacuation from Charleston were able to seek freedom abroad as Black Loyalists.

Back to teaching and children — throughout my dissertation research on representations of slavery in Charleston I heard historic interpreters say that the history of slavery is difficult to explain to children. One interpreter recalled that African American schoolchildren could be especially resistant to hearing about such a painful history that involved their ancestors. With this context in mind, I was surprised and pleased to see a children’s education program at Drayton Hall in 2012 that not only effectively engaged fourth graders in learning about plantation slavery in the Lowcountry, it also took on slavery during a complex historic period like the Revolutionary War. The set up for this powerful historic education activity went like this:

The historic interpreter provides a brief historic outline of how the volatile context of the Revolutionary War provided opportunities for freedom for enslaved African Americans (this tied to a lesson in their history curriculum back at school). He then instructs the children that they are all enslaved people during the Revolution, living on a plantation like Drayton Hall. He then points to four signs, and tells them that these are their options for what to do while the war is going on. He then asks the students to line up beyond the sign that states what they think they would do. Once they do this, he tells them that they are allowed to move to the line behind a different sign if they change their minds during the activity.

The day I observed, the activity went like this:

After listening to instructions, the majority of students immediately ran to get in line behind the “Join the Patriots” sign. “Run Away” also snagged a good number. “Stay in Place” only had two students and “Join the British” had one excited student who explained that he just loved the British. The interpreter then asked the first student in line behind each of the signs why he or she made that choice. After the student answered, he asked for input from others, and then explained the consequences. For “Stay in Place,” the girl in front explained that she thought it was safer. The interpreter responded that she might be right, and she could stay with her family for the time being, but she would still be in slavery and could be sold away. For the “Run Away” crowd, he explained that they could try, but they would need a map, food, water, and then bluntly asked– where would you go? And what about any family members on the plantation? At the “Join the Patriots” sign, the first student in that long line quickly stated that he was a Patriot because he deserved his freedom too. The interpreter responded that he was right, he does deserve his freedom, but he would not get it from the American government for nearly another one hundred years. This created lots of mumbling between the Patriots students. Finally, the interpreter explained to the excited student who wanted to “Join the British” that this choice might actually give him a chance at freedom, but just a chance. Many of the students started to move. By the end of the activity the majority now stood with the British. Afterwards, the interpreter told me that shift happened nearly every time he led the activity. In a roughly twenty minute exercise, they could comprehend that much about the importance of freedom to enslaved people during the Revolutionary War.

This exercise showed me that teaching students about slavery was not only possible, but when carefully done with a well-informed instructor, it could also be engaging, generate empathy, and tackle complex historic subjects. I also wondered whether adults could benefit from a similar exercise.