American slavery in the elementary school classroom

I’ve been visiting a second-grade classroom this year and talking to the students about early American history.  Back around Thanksgiving time, I gave a talk about Pilgrims and Wampanoags–that was pretty easy for elementary school consumption.  I put together a bunch of PowerPoint slides sixteenth and seventeenth-century drawings and photographs of the re-enactors at Plimoth Plantation, and I invited them to tell me about the similarities and differences they saw between English and Indian material culture:  housing, clothing, and food.  My talk in February was more difficult, because I talked to them about slavery in American history.

First, I drew a timeline from 1600 to 2011 on the board, and showed them exactly how long Africans and African Americans lived in slavery in Anglo-American and U.S. American history (1619-1865).  I drew another line to show the years of segregation and Jim Crow (1865-1964).  That pretty well covered the whole timeline, which was impressive and quite literally jaw-dropping information for them to take in.  Then, I read them a wonderful picture book that illustrates the institution of slavery in terrifying terms that children can understand immediately:  the theft of children from parents.  Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson is based on the true story of Henry “Box” Brown and his self-emancipation from slavery in 1849.

I was unprepared for the question-and-answer session afterward, when the students really wanted to know why.  Why did white people think they could do this to black people?  Why did anyone ever think slavery was acceptable?  Going into long explanations about the fact that many people in the medieval and early modern periods were unfree laborers, or talking about the global and imperial conditions that made slavery a common experience for many people through world history didn’t really seem to be the way to go with second graders. 

The teacher had the children all write me thank-you notes on that fat-lined elementary school paper that is lined only on the bottom half, leaving the top half open for illustrations.  In the notes for the slavery lecture, the students all made a curious choice:  either they wrote about an appalling fact about the violence of slavery and then included only happy-faced historical people in their drawings, or they wrote that they had learned something relatively neutral but illustrated their notes with images of violence or conflict.  They seemed unable or unwilling to include both verbal and visual information that was uniformly negative or upsetting.

Here are a few examples:

  • Dear Mrs. Historiann, Thank you for coming to our classroom to teach us about slavery.  I learned that they went through lots of pain, illustrated by a smiling white master whipping a smiling slave.
  • I learned that white people sold black familys, illustrated by a smiling white person standing next to a smiling black person on an auction block.
  • I learnd that slavery is not ok hear But ok back then, accompanied by a very detailed illustration of a slave market showing people making specific bids for slaves, the auctioneer shouting “sold for $500,” and slaves in a cart screaming “No!!!”
  • I learned that slavery wasend only in the USA.  Egipt had Izrealeans for slaves, illustrated with black and white children and adults smiling and holding hands.

I’d love any suggestions you have for dealing with the why question for early elementary students.  Clearly my lesson was successful–most of the children wrote more than just “I learned slavery was bad,” or “I learned that slavery was wrong,” and they now have some context for understanding the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King’s work, which seems to be the focus of most elementary school African American history lessons.  I understand why–teachers and school curricula want black history to conform to the message of uplift students are supposed to get from their American history lessons.  It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach about wrongs being righted or overcome than to teach about the persistence of oppression.

One fascinating fact about this second-grade classroom:  when I showed up to do my Pilgrims and Wampanoags talk, I brought a bunch of slides but was prepared to buzz through them in 10 minutes or less if the students didn’t seem interested.  Much to my surprise–and absolute delight–they sat there and listened intently to me and to each other for forty minutes, and when I cut off the presentation there were still lots of hands raised eagerly in the air.  My presentation on slavery took about the same length of time as the first lecture.  I congratulated them on sitting through a college-length lecture and told them that they were more attentive and better behaved than most of my current students, so I had better see them in college in another 11 years or so.

0 thoughts on “American slavery in the elementary school classroom

  1. That’s a cool graphic and pretty sophisticated visual depiction for 2nd grade, I would think. On the “why question,” you can certainly tell them what they already have at least some inkling into–that people do bad things sometimes. Whether you can proceed from there to how and why bad things get structurally embedded into systems and institutions and ways of doing or being is a larger question. On the “another eleven years or so” issue, I judged a national history day regional competion recently, and the middle schoolers were systematically more sophisticated than their high school counterparts in both their storyboards (which might suggest parental or other adult interventions) but also in their responses to the questioning by the judges. Substantially so, and in almost every case (N=10 presentations). So I’d worry somewhat about the “see them in college” part. Slackery happens. A year ago I gave a talk to five successive classes in a middle school over about a two hour period, and I was more worn down than the same number of college survey classes, while their attention basically didn’t ebb. Except for the one right before lunch, that is.


  2. Great experience, I wish they’ll send more academics to elementary school. This anecdotal information is yet another indication that elementary schools can complete their work in half the time it takes now.


  3. I’m involved with a TAH funded project in Iowa that’s been working with elementary school teachers since 2001. The elementary school teachers in our project (we’re up to about 650, total, at last count) tackle slavery and segregation in the third grade, and the teachers and student do a really remarkable job. The unit – with overview, standards alignment, lesson plans, and extra resources – is here: . We start working with students on historical thinking and critical skills when they’re in kindergarten – those lessons are also available on the site, and they offer some context for the sorts of skills students have by the time they reach these third grade plans.


  4. This is a tough question, but one we need to deal with as a country. Sure, these are just second graders and I too would be reluctant to go into an extended conversation about white privilege going back millennia. But what concerns me is how this eagerness to present an “overcoming” narrative continues in 5th grade, 8th grade, 12th grade, until they sit in front of us in college and write papers about how Africans benefited from the slave trade by being introduced to the west. So this isn’t much of a solution, more of a thought. How is it that students can get through thirteen years of schooling and not fully understand the totality of slavery?


  5. Whoops – I hit enter before I was done!

    I think perhaps part (although not all) of the problem in the thank you notes is the medium – a thank you note is supposed to express gratitude, and that sets up a pretty big juxtaposition for the students to surmount. A different task, a different framing, would very likely provide a very different result. That’s not to say it’s not a challenging task to get students to think critically about history (and race), and to accept that it’s not a story of steady progress, or of sunshine and roses. But I do think that by asking students to say thank you and to communicate what they learned the teacher put the kids in a difficult social position (especially for second graders!)


  6. I think its important to mention that Africans were living in advanced civilizations on the African continent, and that they were enslaved because they were good at farming, working with metals (blacksmithing was important), and because due to hundreds of years trading with Europeans, they were not susceptible to diseases brought by Europeans. Africans brought important methods of farming to the New Continent. I think mentioning these things is important to allow the Black children to feel a sense of pride in the accomplishments of their race, and not dwell exclusively and the fact that their entire race was victimized. There are ways to simplify this information for second graders. I hate the single minded focus on the harsh realities of slavery without mentioning how awesome, diverse, well developed and capable most African cultures were.


  7. I something think that I think about the answer to the “Why?” question in very second grade terms: Frequently, when people encounter people who are different than they are, they assume that the people are lesser than they are. Not a very sophisticated beginning, I know, but it also gets us thinking about how we relate to other who are foreign, have different shades of skin, speak different languages, follow different customs. And people are enslaved today, for very similar reasons, because their societies think they have lesser values, and social and political and economic institutions disempower them while making money out of these systems of unfree labor.

    BTW what an amazing project. I wish I could be one of your second graders!


  8. Excellent points justmesayin’. My kids live in NY, so the big surprise for them was that slavery existed here. For a very long time. After the revolution even. It completely blows apart the South evil, North innocent dichotomy. They also learn MLK and Rosa Parks are the saints that ended the evil of segregation (I tell them Malcolm X stories on the sly). As they approach High School I will be interested in what “facts” they need to pass Regents.


  9. good point, justmesayin. That also gets to my concerns as well. Too often students pull back from the harsh realities by trying to find ways it was good to rip millions of people from their homeland. This shows up in the “they were exposed to Western opportunities” type language. Focusing on the advanced civilizations from which enslaved peoples were taken.


  10. Were any of the 2nd graders black? It’s probably above their comprehension level to link the racial composition of their classrooms with the segregation lesson you gave them, but I wonder if any of the teachers noticed, Historiann. I used to dread talk about Indians and blacks in elem. school, as I got information from my family all the time, but school was quite a different story. I got in trouble during our Thanksgiving celebration when I was asked (we had to dress up as Pilgrims and Indians and I was an Indian) what I would do if I was really in MA and I said, “kill the Pilgrims, because it’s not going to turn out well for the Indians.” My mother backed me up though 🙂


  11. I say this as a US historian who is also the parent of a second-grader. I wind up talking about these things a lot at home and at work so I apologize if I mention things you’ve already done. My sample size of second graders is about 30, one of whom I live with; my sample size of people who don’t know what to say about slavery is . . . much larger.

    Those thank-you notes strike me as their attempt to defuse tensions. Kids don’t want adults, as a rule, to make them feel sad or angry and they certainly couldn’t tell you in the context of a thank-you note that you had made them feel bad. Of course, feeling upset is the appropriate response to hearing this information. But I can’t imagine anyone told them that that was okay to express.

    I would go ahead and tell them it is okay to feel confused and angry and sad. When my son or is his friends ask these sorts of questions, I tell them that is okay to be angry and upset that this happened. I am angry and upset that this happened. Many, many people are angry and upset that it happened. I also say that there are lots of different ideas about why it happened (and, if they want, I tell them some of those ideas).

    And then I tell them that many, many people fought slavery and racialized thinking. I think it is also helpful (again, in both contexts) to appreciate how long people have fought against white supremacy and how brave so many of those people were. And I really emphasize that then, as now, the idea of white supremacy is a lie. Kids (and far too many adults) really need to hear that language so that they have it at hand when they need it. If no one tells them, directly, that white supremacy is just a bald-faced lie then it’s far too easy to nod along when people start talking about the benefits of western civilization.

    This is such important work; I’m so glad you’re doing it.


    PS We LOVE Henry’s Freedom Box in our house.


  12. Echoing mngirl, this is important work, Historiann.

    I think a central issue here is objectification, both with regard to the causes of slavery and how we teach and learn about it. Do you see this group of people as your kind or as an exploitable “other?” Do you empathize with the enslaved because you see them as people like you or do you pity them?

    Objectification is an issue I discuss with my own children regularly. They can understand this and even better, they can identify it when they see it. I think this is a pretty standard strategy for anti-racist parenting and teaching. We also talk about greed and desire, and the delusions that arise from those. I come to this from my religious tradition but of course you can get there from a completely secular place as well.


  13. Actually, my perspective on slavery has changed considerably since I started teaching at the University of Ghana. The various slave trades, most notably the slave trade among Africans in the territory that became Ghana is probably the most discussed topic in the history department here. The first thing that one realizes here is that slavery in the US coexisted with several other slave trades. This fact seems to often get lost in American history. But, in terms of understanding the issue it is something that is heavily stressed by Ghanaian scholars.

    Slaves were traded internally, to Arabs in the North, and to Arabs in the East. Even regarding the trade across the Atlantic, more slaves were sent to Brazil and the West Indies than to what became the US. So slavery in the US was not unique despite some peculiarities, but rather part of a much larger set of slave trading patterns that involved other places in the Americas such as Brazil, much of Africa, and the Middle East. Much of Ghanaian scholarship is aimed at understanding the internal slave trade and its connections to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. A trade which involved the Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, British and other Europeans as well as Americans. Again I think the international nature of the trade becomes muted to the point of seriously hampering understanding in most American discussions of the issue.

    Second, the time-line for the US is not really unique either. Slavery was abolished in the Gold Coast, Brazil, and South Africa long after the US Civil War. It was only officially abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1961. Slavery still reputedly existed in Mauritania well into the 1990s. Internationally abolition is something that was pursued throughout the mid-19th century and there was opposition to it in many places outside the US. So rather than look at slavery as a uniquely American issue I am inclined to look at it in a larger context.

    Ghanaian scholarship regarding slavery is generally more concerned with slaves in Africa or the shipping of slaves out of Africa than in slavery in the Americas. But, before I came here I really did not understand just how international the slave trade was. The African focus of historians in Legon is only part of the picture. But, it is an important part and one that almost always seems lacking in American accounts.


  14. I really like the timeline idea, except for what it suggests about life after 1964, or just life in 2011, for that matter. The focus on uplift you mention so often translates into allowing or convincing kids to believe that we’re done here. We are, emphatically, not.


  15. Thanks for all of your ideas and suggestions. I have volunteered to give a few talks about my field of history for 30-60 minutes twice this school year when it sounded like the curriculum touched on my area of expertise–that’s it. I don’t know a lot about children or teaching elementary school, but it seemed to me that teaching them 2 big ideas was about all I could do: 1) slavery and Jim Crow dominate American history chronologically, and 2) slavery was all about tearing families apart. At best, I thought I might plant the seeds for some doubt or at least for some wider context for understanding American history as a whole.

    I agree with those of you who have lamented the Whig focus of most American history teaching. But I don’t think that’s something that’s going to change any time soon. For example, I’m teaching an 18th C America class (and so the American Revolution) for the first time in several years, and it’s become strikingly clear to me that even the professional historography on the AmRev is even more partisan and slanted than the historiography on the American Civil War from either the Nationalist or the Lost Cause schools of thought. U.S. scholars never write from the perspective that the Am Rev is anything less than something to be celebrated and cheered along–EVEN those who focus on African Americans during the Revolution, who were predominately loyalists.

    So I guess my position now is wondering where any kind of critical interrogation of American history is supposed to come from among 2nd, 5th, or 8th grade teachers when it’s all so jingoistic, even at the professional level. A few lectures from me or someone else on the global context for slavery on on African cultures is not going to do it.

    Catherine’s and mngirl’s comments about the genre of the TY note are really helpful for contextualizing that juxtaposition of emotions that I saw in the notes the children wrote. Also, Big Boss Lady’s question about the racial/ethnic background of the children is important here: it’s a majority white class with several Latina/o children as well as some mixed-race children. I assumed no prior knowledge or understanding of African American history among the students outside of the MLK/Civil Rights Movement history they had done earlier in the winter, and I think that was the right assumption.

    -k- commented that ze thought the timeline suggested to students that everything was fixed. To the contrary, I think it shocked the students to see what an insignificant amount of time has passed since the Civil Rights movement relative to the rest of American history. The discussion we had was all about slavery times, anyway.


  16. I know we’re talking about history here, so maybe my thoughts are off-topic, but I’m disturbed by the … assumption?, belief? (not sure what the right word would be) that slavery is behind us.

    Surely, it’s important to teach the 2nd graders (and everyone!) that it’s bigger than ever. That in modern slavery 80% of the slaves are female. (Isn’t a lack of emphasis on that fact only one more instance of the Great Forgetting of women generally?) That whatever explains it is still operating all around us.

    That “why?” is really the heart of the matter. Identifying why people do such horrific crimes, which is the first step to exstirpating the cause, is the relevance of history to the present and the future.

    I know it’s greed and an inability to distinguish humans and cattle, but history can tell us which specific laws and cultural habits channeled those bad passions into socially tolerated crimes against humanity.

    Society still tolerates those crimes. None of this is history. Very, very, very unfortunately.


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  18. I have followed this thread with interest, although I have nothing to add to the discussion other than my congratulations on how your sessions with 2nd-graders went, Historiann–it sounds like you covered a few high points in a way that was accessible to 7-year-olds very effectively.

    I’m commenting in reponse to Historiann’s 6:24 am post just above: I’m disappointed to hear that so many American historians have such a partisan view of the American revolution, especially as a colleague of mine, in an attempt to convince me that conceptions of colonial North America are becoming more nuanced, recently told me that a major Early American conference will shortly be held in Quebec. Have you thought of taking a look at Canadian historians, or any historians of pre-Civil War North American who include the Canadian viewpoint for an alternative outlook on the American revolution? As far back as high school social studies classes, I remember that it was carefully emphasized that one outcome of the American revolution was the creation of English-speaking British North American colonies which eventually banded together to become Canada–much of the curriculum seemed designed to combat the Whig view of American history, as the teachers had to work hard to overcome pop culture American history (ie., movies like The Patriot). Even now in the US, I’m often amazed at how many of my grad students aren’t aware than the American Revolution was a civil war, and than thousands of American colonial citizens chose to leave rather than support the nascent American republic.

    Or, to put it in a more light-hearted way, an elderly historian of American history at the University of Victoria had a reputation for starting his American history classes this way: Prof: “Who was Benedict Anderson?” Students: “He was a traitor.” Prof: “No, he was a patriot. What was the outcome of the American Revolution?” Students: “The creation of a new country.” Prof: “No, the creation of two new countries.” Having established that, he would then proceed to teach American history from a distinctly UEL viewpoint.


  19. Benedict Arnold = Revolutionary flip-flopper.

    Benedict Anderson = the “imagined communities” guy.

    In response to your big question, Canuck Down South, I haven’t looked at Canadian views of the AmRev., but I will the next time I teach Eighteenth Century America. It’s really appalling after 3 years of reading/teaching comparative/transnational colonial histories to return to the Revolution historiography and see how jingoistic it all is. Even the New Left historians don’t question the righteousness or correctness of the Whig perspective–they just argue that it was unfinished or incomplete when it came to universal sufferage/emancipation/women’s rights, etc.

    Just as there’s a strong (and pretty much uncontested) argument to be made that African Americans were completely rational and sensible in their loyalism, I wonder if there’s a longue duree argument to be made w/r/t women’s interests, too. As I look longingly at the universal health care that Canadians and Britons enjoy, it strikes me that it’s a pretty easy feminist argument to make that 20th C American women would have likely been better off with a Canadian-style 1867 Confederation-like separation. All too often, U.S. style “individualism” is really all about the traditional privileges of white manhood (gun ownership, the fetishization of the so-called “free market,” federalism, etc.)


  20. I visited a fourth grade classroom a few years back as part of their medieval history coursework. I think the teacher was a bit overly optimistic in how much of the introductory background they’d mastered by the time I came. When I asked them to give me an example of someone from or something that happened in the Middle Ages, I was bombarded with “World War II!” “Queen Victoria!”

    Needless to say, my plan to lead them through a workshop on the Crusades scaled suddenly back and we spent the hour talking about social ranks & lifestyle of the Middle Ages. Learning the words “serf” and “peasant” and some of the concepts of manorial life was a much better outcome.

    About 1/5 to 1/4 of our majors are in the concurrent B.Ed., taking an additional one year to get their teacher’s degree. A fair chunk more will follow up with the separate one-year B.Ed. program. So, we teach a LOT of teachers.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that they learn not just content, but ideas of how to educate in our classrooms. Creating projects that can be adapted to the K-12 classrooms, encouraging them to think about how they address important historical issues? These are all ways we can enrich their experience as students and beyond.


  21. Historiann, really interesting questions to think about and I’m still pondering most of them but I had to comment on your American Revolution question. I’m a graduate student and a few semesters back was reading a paper by someone whose name escapes me but was respected in the field who described the American revolution as “relatively bloodless.” I was shocked that none of my compatriots found this representation as off base as I did. My professor pointed out that this was likely because this was a classroom in the north east and I was from the Carolinas so my perception of the war is that it was ugly, bloody, and full of vengence and reprisals.

    While I accept that that was the reason for my reaction, I’m a little disturbed that a room full of history graduate students had never heard of the American Revolution as ugly civil war narrative.


  22. Canuck Down South,

    The same class (which was for the record a history of american legal theory class) that I had that reaction against the “relatively bloodless” happy American Revolution narrative the class started to actively ask for the Canadian point of view. In part this was because the American histrography seems to use “British North America” for “pre-Revolution US” with some obvious erronious assertions as a result.

    But my partner is a Canadian and my favorite thing to do is to bring her to American historical sites and tell the tour guide that her great great grandfather burned down the White House. Not a joke, her grandfather specifically. Washington was burned by Canadians is something we’ve lost too, along with the burning of York by Americans during the War of 1812.


  23. I should add, that when we asked the professor who was an 18th American history specialist for the Canadian point of view he thought this was novel and a strange quark of our group dynamics.


  24. NE Nat–I think you’re right that region has something to do with it, but I seriously question how anyone can say that about any region of the war. Maybe they were counting only combat deaths as a result of war wounds? Because I can’t think of anything much bloodier or more devastating than the men who perished of smallpox outside of Quebec in 1775-76 or at Gwinn’s Island in Virginia. Anyone who knows anything about the history of medicine knows that until WWII, more soldiers died worldwide of camp fevers and infectious diseases than of combat wounds. And that’s just the soldiers–what of the civilian casualties, intentional or not?

    Clearly, only some deaths count, only some are heroic or worthy of remembrance. The others–well, sucks for them that we don’t want to remember the *majority* of deaths in the Revolution.


  25. Dear Mrs. Historiann, Today our teacher Dr. Radikal tought us Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, and we lerned insest is bad excep when girls make bad decisions and deserve it. (illustrated with smiling, white girl holding hands with her smiling father.)


  26. “To the contrary, I think it shocked the students to see what an insignificant amount of time has passed since the Civil Rights movement relative to the rest of American history. The discussion we had was all about slavery times, anyway.”

    Sure– the post-’64 discussion wasn’t really what you were there to talk about. My comment mostly had to do with the way that/this time period gets treated in the broader school discourse that set the context for your talk. It’s shocking how hard one has to work to get (fancy public R1) undergrads to honestly consider that Everything Is Not Alright; maybe more of what you’re doing earlier on would help. The timeline’s powerful stuff. (Still, I say, the ‘ending’ matters.)


  27. I see what you’re saying, -k-. I think what you’re seeing is also the optimism of youth and–if you teach at an overwhelming white uni–the Whiggish tendencies of white privilege.

    Most white people don’t think racism is a problem for them, ergo they think it’s not a problem for anyone.


  28. Pingback: Teaching Slavery to Elementary Schoolers. « History and America's Schools

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