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Free, but not Free: Life of Free Blacks before the Civil War

This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores the life of free blacks in the United States prior to the Civil War using video segments from Finding Your Roots.

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Lesson Summary

Overview

The 2012 series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the complex tapestry of American history through the stories of celebrity guests. This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores the life of free blacks in the United States prior to the Civil War, using video segments from Finding Your Roots Episode 9, highlighting the family histories of comedian Wanda Sykes and musician John Legend.

In the Introductory Activity, students explore the lives of free blacks in the U.S. before the 13th Amendment was passed, and brainstorm ways blacks attained their freedom. Students view a segment exploring the lives of Wanda Sykes’s free black ancestors in the 1850s and learn how researchers discovered they were free.

In Learning Activity 1, students explore how Wanda Sykes’s ancestors gained their freedom in the 1600s. Students also views egments about how John Legend’s ancestor Peyton Polly gained his freedom and how his children were freed, kidnapped, sold back into slavery, and eventually freed again. In Learning Activity 2, students read articles about the Polly family to gain new insights about the family’s road to freedom. Students learn about how slaves gained freedom by serving in the Revolutionary War.

In the Culminating Activity, students reflect upon the themes presented in the lesson and write reflection essays.

Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Describe several ways in which blacks attained freedom prior to the Civil War.
  • Name restrictions placed upon free blacks and the dangers they encountered prior to the abolition of slavery.
  • Discuss the details of Peyton Polly’s family’s tough road to freedom.
  • Explain why the governor of Ohio tried to rescue the Polly children after they were kidnapped.
  • Describe reasons why free blacks bought members of their own families as slaves.

Grade Level:

9-11

Suggested Time

(2) 45-minute class periods

Media Resources

Wanda Sykes’s Free Black Ancestors in the 1850s Video

Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s Video

The Story of Peyton Polly Video

The Story of Peyton Polly’s Children Video

Fighting for Freedom Video

Web Sites

For use in Learning Activity 2:

The Lesson

Part I: INTRODUCTORY ACTIVITY

  1. Ask students to describe what the 13th Amendment accomplished and when it was passed. (It abolished slavery and was passed in 1865).
  2. Ask students to consider whether there were free blacks before the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. If students say “yes,” ask them to think about how blacks became free before the end of slavery. (Accept all answers.) Ask students to consider when they think blacks might have first been free in the U.S. (Accept all answers.)
  3. Explain that this lesson focuses on free blacks in the United States prior to the Civil War, using segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which explores the history of the United States through the family stories of well-known Americans. This lesson uses segments from a Finding Your Roots episode highlighting the family histories of comedian Wanda Sykes and musician John Legend.
  4. Let students know you will be showing a video segment featuring Wanda Sykes’s free African American ancestors. As students view the segment, ask them to observe how researchers knew that Wanda’s ancestors were free and not slaves. Also, ask students to find out restrictions imposed upon free blacks like Wanda’s ancestors.
  5. Play the Wanda Sykes’s Free Black Ancestors in the 1850s Video. After showing the segment, ask students to discuss how researchers knew Wanda’s ancestors in Virginia were free. (The marriage certificate,dated in 1853, 8 years before the Civil War began, shows that Wanda’s great-great- great-grandparents, John Francis and Elizabeth Banks, were free, since only free people were able to legally marry.)
  6. Ask students to discuss what life was like for free blacks in the South in the 1850s. (They were always in danger. Laws in various states prohibited them from voting, testifying against white people in court, and marrying across the color line.In Virginia, free people of color had to carry their papers with them to prove they were free. If they didn’t have free papers they could be thrown in jail or sold into slavery. Even when people had proper paperwork, sometimes their paperwork was taken away from them and torn up.)

Part II: LEARNING ACTIVITY 1

  1. Ask students to brainstorm how they think Wanda’s ancestors became free in the first place. (Accept all answers.)
  2. Introduce the next segment by letting students know that you are now going to show a segment that explores how Wanda’s ancestors on her father’s side of the family gained their freedom.
  3. Play the Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s Video. After showingthe segment, ask students how Wanda’s black ancestors gained their freedom.  (Her 9th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Banks, was white and her 9th great-grandfather was a black slave. Since the mother was free, her child was also free.)
  4. Ask students to discuss the ways that most slaves gained their freedom. (They could be given freedom by their previous owners in their wills. Also, if a child’s mother was free, the child was also free. However, if the mother was a slave, the child was also a slave.)
  5. Explain that now you are going to show video segments focusing on musician John Legend’s 5th great-grandfather, Peyton Polly. As students view the segments, ask them to find out how John Legend’s ancestor gained his freedom and what happened to his children after Peyton was freed.
  6. Play the video segment The Story of Peyton Polly. After playing the segment, ask students to describe how Peyton Polly gained his freedom. (His master freed Peyton, Peyton’s brother, and son upon his death in his will. His master also left Peyton land and money to start his life as a free man.)
  7. Ask students to describe what happened to Peyton’s seven children that had been enslaved in Kentucky. (Peyton’s brother Douglas purchased them. Then Peyton and his children escaped to Ohio to freedom.)
  8. Ask students to discuss why Peyton’s brother, a former slave, might have purchased his relatives. (In order to protect them, so that they couldn’t be harmed by someone else.)
  9. Ask students to predict what happened to Peyton and his children after escaping to Ohio. (Accept all answers.)
  10. Play the video segment The Story of Peyton Polly’s Children. Ask students to describe what happened to Peyton and his children after escaping to Ohio. [A band of armed, white men from Kentucky crossed the Ohio River and broke into Peyton’s home, kidnappinh all eight children and taking them back to Kentucky. The kidnappers separated and sold the children (ages 4-17) to masters in Kentucky and Virginia.]
  11. Ask students what steps Peyton took to get his children back. (He went to the local prosecutor, who wrote Ohio Governor Rubin Wood about the Polly family. The governor intervened and sent someone to Kentucky and Virginia to investigate the matter. The House, Senate, and Governor of Ohio did everything they could to try to rescue the Polly family. They sent investigators to find the kidnappers and spent thousands of dollars on lawyers. In Kentucky, the attorney general ordered the immediate release of the Polly children enslaved there. The state of Virginia refused to free the remaining four Polly children who were enslaved in Virginia.)
  12. Ask students to explain what finally led to the freedom of all the Polly children.(The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which officially ended slavery.)
  13. Lead a discussion about Peyton Polly and his family. Ask students to share their thoughts about what happened to the Polly children. Ask students to discuss why they think the governor of Ohio tried to free the Polly children. (He didn’t want people from other states coming into his state to kidnap people and take them out of the state.)

Part III: LEARNING ACTIVITY 2

  1. Divide students into small groups. Ask each group to read one of the following articles about the Polly family. As students read the articles, ask them tofind out additional information about the story of the Polly family:
  2. After students have read the articles, ask each group to share its findings with the class.
  3. Ask students to discuss new insights they have gained from the articles about the story of Peyton Polly and his family.
  4. Leada discussion about the ways in which slaves achieved freedom prior to the passage of the 13th Amendment. (Possibleanswers: through provisions in masters’ wills or if they were born to a free woman.)
  5. Ask students to view the next segment to learn how the Revolutionary War helped blacks attain their freedom.
  6. Play the video segment Fighting for Freedom. After playing the segment, ask students to discuss how the Revolutionary War helped blacks attain their freedom. (Slaves from the New England states could fight in the Revolutionary War with permission from their masters. Upon completing their service, they would be granted freedom. In Virginia, slaves could not legally fight in the war, but some owners claimed their slaves were free to get them to fight in their place. In 1783, a law was passed in Virginia that granted freedom to anyone who served as a soldier in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.)

Part IV: CULMINATING ACTIVITY

  1. Lead a discussion aboutthe ways that free blacks tried to avoid danger and preserve their freedom for themselves and their relatives. (Possible topics to include: African Americans moved to states like Ohio where they could live freely. Some free blacks, like Peyton Polly’s brother, purchased family members as slaves so they could protect them and eventually bring them to freedom.)
  2. Ask students to do oneof the following:
    • Imagine you lived in Peyton Polly’s time and you are a lawyer representing Peyton Polly. Write a letter to the government of Virginia outlining the reasons why his children should be returned to him and freed from slavery.
    • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the lives of Wanda Sykes’s free ancestors in Virginia in the 1850s and the life of Peyton Polly and his family.
  3. Ask students to share their writings with the class.

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