Teaching Activities (Free)

Reading Between the Lines: An Art Contest Helps Students Imagine the Lives of Runaway Slaves

Teaching Activity. By Thom Thacker and Michael A. Lord. Rethinking Schools. 4 pages.
An art contest is used as the basis from which students can examine primary historical documents (advertisements for runaway slaves) to gain a deeper understanding of the institution of slavery in the North.
Time Periods: Colonization: 1492 - 1764, 18th Century, Revolution & Constitution: 1765 - 1799, 19th Century, Early 19th Century: 1800 - 1849, Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864
Themes: African American, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery and Resistance

Reading Between the Lines: An Art Contest Helps Students Imagine the Lives of Runaway Slaves (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History“Offensive,” “inhumane,” “absurd” were a few of the comments expressed by high school students after they read advertisements like the one above. The students, from two schools in the Lower Hudson Valley region of New York State, examined the ads for runaways in preparation for an art contest sponsored by Philipsburg Manor, a historic site in New York’s Hudson Valley. Philipsburg Manor, where we both work, was once owned by a family of Anglo-Dutch merchants and operated by a community of 23 enslaved Africans. The central mission of Philipsburg Manor is to bring to light this hidden history of slavery in the North. During the colonial period, advertisements like the one excerpted above were a common sight in many newspapers. Today, these primary documents can serve as painful reminders of our nation’s history. They also can help us discover new perspectives on our past.

In the fall of 2005, Philipsburg Manor created an art contest we titled “Pretends to Be Free: Imagining Runaway Slaves.” We initially targeted eight local high schools for participation in the contest, but surprisingly, only two chose to participate. After doing some development work with mentor teachers, students produced artwork based on the ads. In addition to submitting a piece of two-dimensional art in any medium, the contest required students to submit commentary describing their work and the reasons they chose particular advertisements.

Lesson originally published by Rethinking Schools | Zinn Education Project