Presidents and the Enslaved: Helping Students Find the Truth

Teaching Activity. By Bob Peterson. 7 pages.
How a 5th grade teacher and his students conducted research to answer the question: “Which presidents owned people?” Available in Spanish.

Time Periods: 18th Century, 19th Century
Themes: African American, Education, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery
Presidents and Slaves: Helping Students Find the Truth (Lesson) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A romanticized image of work at Mt. Vernon. Source: Library of Congress.

During a lesson about George Washington and the American Revolution, I explained to my 5th graders that Washington owned over 300 people. One student added that Thomas Jefferson also was a slave owner. And then, in part to be funny and in part expressing anger—over vote fraud involving African Americans in the then-recent 2000 election and the U.S. Supreme Court’s subsequent delivery of the presidency to George W. Bush—one of my students shouted, “Bush is a slave owner, too!”

“No, Bush doesn’t own slaves,” I calmly explained. “Slavery was finally ended in this country in 1865.” Short exchanges such as this often pass quickly and we move onto another topic. But this time one student asked, “Well, which presidents were slave owners?”

She had me stumped. “That’s a good question,” I said. “I don’t know.” Thus began a combined social studies, math, and language arts project in which I learned along with my students, and that culminated in a fascinating exchange between my students and the publishers of their U.S. history textbook. After I admitted that I had no clue exactly which presidents owned slaves, I threw the challenge back to the students. “How can we find out?” I asked.


Lesson originally published by Rethinking Schools | Zinn Education Project



Originally published in Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice. Check out Rethinking Multicultural Education for more articles and lessons that move beyond a simplistic focus on heroes and holidays to demonstrate a powerful vision of anti-racist, social justice education.


Related Resource This website, referenced in the article by Bob Peterson, provides a quiz and information for students called “Slavery and the U.S. Presidents.”