How to Teach Children About Slavery

Young girls sitting at table in classroom.
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Teaching elementary students about slavery requires sensitivity because many students have family histories that were affected by it. Approach the topic from a historical point of view, and reassure students that prejudices and civil injustices should never be tolerated. Focus on the economic reasons behind slavery, why it was such an unfair practice and how both black and white members of society stood against the injustices. Avoid graphic images that are too mature for young students.

1 Pre-Civil War Economic Demands

Examine slavery in America before the Civil War, including its presence in both the North and the South, suggests Christopher Czajka, PBS's educational consultant and lesson plan writer for the "Slavery and the Making of America" series. Talk about the demand for slave labor in Southern states to help with crops, such as cotton and tobacco. Discuss how Northern states didn't have as many slaves, but still relied on slave labor for commercial and industrial production. Explain the differences between slaves and indentured servants. Have students make an agricultural map of crops in the 13 colonies, so they can see why slavery was especially vital to the economy in South. Stress the fact that even though slaves provided cheap labor, it was an inhumane and unjust system. Blacks deserved fair treatment, equal pay and the right to cease employment as they saw fit.

2 The Civil War

Discuss the Civil War and how slavery temporarily divided the United States into two separate countries. Explain Abraham Lincoln's role in the controversy, and discuss the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Introduce your students to abolitionists, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Show pictures of famous abolitionists so students can put a face with their names. You might ask older elementary schoolchildren to write one-page reports on an abolitionist of their choice. Remind students that both black and white Americans supported the anti-slavery movement.

3 The Underground Railroad

Explain how the Underground Railroad helped many slaves escape their bondage and find refuge in free states. Make sure children understand that it wasn't an actual railroad. Discuss methods blacks and whites used to conceal, transport and route slaves through dangerous areas. Explain how individual families helped fugitive slaves escape, knowing that slave owners might kill them for their assistance. Use railroad terminology to describe the Underground Railroad. Those who traveled south to find slaves were called “pilots,” "conductors" guided slaves to safety, slaves were called “passengers” and places of refuge along the Underground Railroad were termed “stations.” Use a map of the Underground Railroad to show students northern-bound land and sea routes, such as the one provided by National Geographic.

4 "The Drinking Gourd"

Read "Follow the Drinking Gourd" by F.N. Monjo aloud to your class. The story is based on a folk tale about fugitive slaves who followed the stars, such as the Big Dipper, to find their way along the Underground Railroad. The story is age-appropriate for children and provides a historical fiction account of a 10-year-old white boy's attempts to help a slave family escape to freedom. Discuss why it was so important for blacks and whites to step out of their comfort zone to help those who were abused and mistreated.

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.