Teaching Hard History With Primary Sources

We can’t teach the truth about American history without including the voices of enslaved people.
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Every time I taught the poem, I’d hear it: a little “oh,” coming from somewhere in the classroom. A moment of recognition. 

In the third stanza of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” the poet interrupts her argument for American independence to explain how she knows so much about the desire for freedom.

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d

By the time I taught the poem, my students and I had already talked about Wheatley’s enslavement. They knew historians think she was Fulani, from Ghana. They knew her enslavers took her name from the ship where, shackled and sick and certainly afraid, she survived the months of darkness through the Middle Passage. They knew she was around 7 years old when she was kidnapped. 

They knew enough to connect her to the children in their own lives, to recognize how her experience—one out of millions—reveals a truth of enslavement that no textbooks or timelines can offer. But here was something they hadn’t considered. 

In the poem, Wheatley isn’t grieving because she’s been torn from everything and everyone she loves. She’s grieving because her father is in pain and because she isn’t there to comfort him.  

I’d hear them start to understand. “Oh.” 


Textbooks Aren’t Enough

Last year, we surveyed more than 1,700 educators about their teaching of American slavery. While almost all—97 percent—agree or strongly agree that “teaching and learning about slavery is essential to understanding American history,” fewer than half—42 percent—agree or strongly agree that their current textbooks “do a good job of covering slavery.”

One way to answer the gap in these numbers is to pull primary sources into our classrooms. While primary sources have their challenges—they have traditionally been difficult to locate, they often require context to make sense, and their language and ideas can be alienating to students accustomed to 21st-century communication—they offer an understanding that textbooks and lectures just cannot. 

If you’re looking for primary sources to incorporate into your teaching, there is a wealth of online resources—including TT’s own Teaching Hard History Text Library. Register for tomorrow’s free webinar, Teaching Hard History: Building Better Lessons About Slavery, for more on how to use the text library in your classroom. (If you can’t join the webinar, you can watch it on demand anytime after January 30, 2019.)

When we make space for the lived experiences of enslaved people in our classrooms, we don’t just give students a fuller understanding of individual lives, like Wheatley’s; we give them a clearer picture of American history. Here are a few types of primary documents you might consider incorporating in your class.


“Slave narratives” show the long history of American slavery and highlight a range of ways people resisted their enslavers and fought for abolition.

What they are

Commonly referred to as “slave narratives,” the largest body of texts written by enslaved people, the genre dates back to the 1770s. These autobiographical texts chronicle everyday and extraordinary experiences of slavery.


What they offer

Often, textbooks center slavery in the mid-19th century, around the Civil War. Early narratives show students that slavery isn’t a blot on U.S. history—it’s a stream that runs from first European contact into the present day.

Although the stories may seem straightforward, narratives often reward careful, close reading. They offer insight into some of the earliest American abolitionist arguments as well as accounts of the horrors enslaved people survived. 

Authors who survived enslavement knew that their narratives would be read as evidence of their intelligence and humanity. These texts don’t just describe the ways enslaved people resisted enslavers’ efforts to reduce them to commodities—the narratives themselves are acts of resistance.


Where to find texts and more information 

TT’s text library includes excerpts from some of the most famous narratives by enslaved people, including Henry Bibb, Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. You can also find 18th-century narratives like those from Olaudah Equiano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Venture Smith

For longer texts, the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the American South” project includes a large collection of online “North American Slave Narratives.” 


Speeches, editorials and other public statements show slavery was the primary reason for secession and help students connect the debate over abolition to present-day rhetoric and policy.

What they are

Public rhetoric surrounding slavery wasn’t limited to any one genre. Speeches, letters, broadsides, essays and even songs were used to argue for and against slavery. Some of these texts predate the Revolution—the first anti-slavery tract published in America was printed in 1700.


What they offer

When asked, “Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?” only 8 percent of students we surveyed chose the correct answer: “to preserve slavery.” Primary sources show students that the American public and those in power recognized the preservation of slavery as the primary reason southern states seceded.

Public debates over abolition also offer opportunities to connect 18th- and 19th-century ideas—both racist and anti-racist—to their contemporary counterparts. Discussion can help students recognize how dehumanizing tropes used to support a status quo dependent on enslaved labor are recycled and used today to support white supremacist ideas and policies.

Primary sources frequently include language, images or ideas that require thoughtful preparation. Educators should review primary sources carefully and be prepared for any slurs and other hateful or hurtful speech. Have a plan in place to address this speech before asking students to read aloud or quote primary sources in class discussions and essays.

Where to find texts and more information

To trace the relationship between slavery and the Civil War, students might read Robert Rhett’s Nashville Convention Speech or South Carolina’s “Declaration of ... Secession.” 

For a model of how primary sources might be used in contemporary arguments, students can see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 article “What This Cruel War Was Over,” which threads together excerpts from 19th-century primary sources to push back against the “lost cause” mythology.

For answers to pro-slavery arguments, TT’s text library offers Frederick Douglass’s “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered” and his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Other texts of interest include the introduction to the 1863 printing of The Barbarism of Slavery, Henry Highland Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves” and the first editorial of the abolitionist paper The Liberator.


“Runaway slave” and “lost friends” advertisements teach students the need for historical recovery work and help them recognize the continuing trauma and damage of slavery.

What they are

Like the other primary sources we’ve discussed, “fugitive” or “runaway slave” ads have a history that dates back to pre-Revolutionary America. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington placed “runaway” ads in early American newspapers to track down enslaved people who escaped from their plantations. These short descriptions were written by enslavers trying to locate those who had escaped them or by jailors who had captured fugitives from slavery and wanted rewards.

“Lost friends” advertisements began appearing after the Civil War and continued to appear in American newspapers into the early 1900s. These advertisements were placed by formerly enslaved people whose families had been torn apart by the trade system of chattel slavery and who were trying to find loved ones.


What they offer

These texts provide valuable information when read individually, in the context of similar advertisements or against different types of ads. “lost friends” ads, particularly, offer an insight into the ways the system of slavery continued to inflict damage even after the ratification of the 13th Amendment. When read against one another, “lost friends” and “runaway slave” ads provide a striking contrast between love and dehumanization. 

These texts also introduce students to the work of historical recovery. Historians are still scouring old newspapers to find these texts and building archives online to share them. Freedom on the Move, a database of advertisements seeking fugitives from slavery, is one such archive. Students can contribute to this knowledge, reading closely to answer the site’s questions about the ads themselves, the people described, the enslavers and the advertisers. 


Where to find texts and more information

Advertisements in TT's text library pair images of the original source with transcriptions and text-based questions. They include “Runaways” and “$200 Reward” and “S. L. Jones Searching for Their Relatives.”

In addition to Freedom on the Move, several websites offer online archives of these texts as well. The Historic New Orleans Collection includes a database of nearly 2,500 “lost friends” ads. Students may also be interested in the Twitter account @SlaveAdverts250, which daily shares an advertisement published exactly 250 years—to the day—earlier.

These resources are just a drop in the bucket. Take advantage of the many primary documents freely available so that your students get the deepest instruction possible when it comes to the foundational institution of American slavery—directly from those who sustained and survived it.

Delacroix is the associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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