Teaching Activities (Free)

Echoes of Enslavement

Teaching Activity. By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca.
Students discover “echoes of enslavement” in their own state — discrete sites of remembering, forgetting, honoring, lying, or distorting — in this lesson based on the book How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith.
Time Periods: Early 19th Century: 1800 - 1849, Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864, Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876, 21st Century
Themes: African American, Racism & Racial Identity, Reconstruction, Slavery and Resistance

This lesson is part of a suite of activities developed to accompany How the Word Is Passed by a Zinn Education Project curriculum collective, which also includes Jesse Hagopian, Cierra Kaler-Jones, Ana Rosado, and Bill Bigelow.

Salmon Brown, son of abolitionist John Brown, was buried at the Grand Army of Republic Cemetery in Portland, Oregon in 1919. (Click image to learn more.)

Ask any group — children or adults — raised in the United States where slavery occurred in the country, and you will get an overwhelming response: the South.

Louis (Lewis) Alexander Southworth (ca. 1830–1917) was born enslaved and moved to Oregon, challenging laws against African Americans in the state. (Click photo to learn more.) Source: State of Oregon

Of course, the question itself is disingenuous. Slavery was a national institution. It “happened” everywhere. Yet the popular discourse of U.S. history suggests otherwise. We read about “slave states” and “free states” or the “antislavery North” and the “pro-slavery South.”

It becomes all too easy to adopt a host of misconceptions: Slavery was limited in scope; it was a regional anachronism; it did not shape the  economy and politics of places where it was illegal to own enslaved people.

And critically, it suggests that when we consider the legacies of slavery — as we have in recent national conversations about everything from Confederate monuments to The New York Times 1619 Project, racist policing to reparations — we are talking mostly about only one part of the country.

This lesson uses excerpts from Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America to invite students to examine their own locales — North and South, East and West, rural and urban — as sites of slavery’s remembering and forgetting.

It asks students to scan their surroundings for historical traces that live beyond the pages of books, to analyze how these sites help or hinder a clear-eyed view of slavery’s legacy, and to share their critical analysis with each other to “map” slavery’s echoes in their own backyards.

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