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        Slavery in the North

        This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson uses video segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots to explore the extent to which slavery existed in the North.

        Lesson Summary


        The 2012 PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the tapestry of American history through the stories of celebrity guests. In Episode 4, Gates explores the family histories of actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick and examines the complex history of slavery in the Northern US.

        This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores the extent to which slavery existed in the North. In the Introductory Activity, students learn about slavery in the North prior to the Civil War, and explore the attitudes of Quakers toward slavery. In the Learning Activities, students explore census data from 1790 through 1860 to find out where slavery existed during that time period. Students explore the story of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a woman who successfully fought for her freedom from slavery in Massachusetts, with the help of Kyra Sedgwick’s ancestor. Students explore the request President Lincoln made to the country to come together to heal after the Civil War and the ways in which Quakers, including Kevin Bacon’s ancestor, responded to that request. In the Culminating Activity, students conduct research about the presence and ultimate abolition of slavery in the northern states.


        After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

        • Name northern states where slavery existed.
        • Describe the extent to which slavery existed in the North.
        • Discuss the Quakers and their attitudes toward slavery and education.
        • Describe the distribution of slaves throughout the US states and territories from 1790 to 1860.
        • Explain who Mumbet was and how she attained her freedom.
        • Discuss what Abraham Lincoln asked the nation to do in his 2nd Inaugural Address and how people responded to his request.
        • Discuss one state’s history of slavery in detail, including information about when and how slavery was abolished in that state.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        (2) 45-minute class periods

        Media Resources

        Slavery in the North Video

        Mumbet Video

        After Slavery Video


        For each student:

        For the class:

        Web Sites

        For the Introductory Activity:

        This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys

        For Learning Activities 1 and 2:

        100 Milestone Documents

        Elizabeth Freeman

        Mumbet/ Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman

        For the Culminating Activity:

        African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts

        Pennsylvania slavery by the numbers

        The Lesson


        1. Ask students to list the names of states where slavery existed before the Civil War. Record student answers on the board.
        2. If students did not have any northern states on their list, ask them if they think slavery existed in the North. If so, ask them to what extent they think slavery existed in the northern states.
        3. Explain that in this lesson they will learn more about slavery and where it took place in the US. Let students know you are now going to show a video segment from Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a television series that explores the history of the United States through the personal family stories of well-known Americans. This segment, from an episode featuring actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, highlights information about slavery in the US prior to the Civil War and the attitudes of Quakers toward slavery. As students view the segment, ask them to write down information they learn about where slavery took place, as well as Quakers’ attitudes toward slavery.
        4. Play the Slavery in the North Video. At the end of the segment, ask students to share new insights they learned about where slavery took place. (Slavery in the North was rampant. In Rhode Island in 1755, one in 10 adults was a slave. There were also thousands of slaves throughout Massachusetts. Kyra Sedgwick’s 4th great-grandfather Theodore Sedgwick owned a slave in Massachusetts. Kevin Bacon’s 6th great-grandfather Samuel Atkinson owned slaves in New Jersey.) 
        5. Ask students to discuss Quakers’ attitudes toward slavery. (When the Quakers arrived in America in the 1650s, slavery already existed and Quakers owned slaves in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey. By the 1680s, Quakers were not happy with aspects of slavery. In the 1750s, the Quakers officially declared the institution of slavery to be wrong and a system that could not be improved. By 1775, only 10% of Quakers still owned slaves. Kevin’s 6th great-grandfather, Samuel Atkinson, was among those who did. Atkinson struggled with the morality of slavery and, in 1775, he stipulated in his will that his slaves should be educated and, at the age of35, they should be freed.)
        6. Review the list you and your students compiled, featuring the names of states where slavery existed. Add any additional states mentioned in the previous segment, which were not included on your list. After revising your list, it should include Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as additional states you and your students listed earlier.  
        7. Optional: Lead a brief discussion about Quakers. Ask students to discuss what they know about Quakers. (For example: Where did they originally come from? Why/how did they come to the United States? Who was William Penn?)  (Possible items to discuss: The Religious Society of Friends began in England in the 17th century. Members of the group, commonly known as Quakers, were persecuted and many moved to different parts of the world, including the Americas. William Penn founded the state of Pennsylvania in 1682 as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their religion.)  Encourage students to explore resources listed in the “websites” section of this lesson (in the Lesson Overview) for more information about Quakers’ views on slavery.




        1. Distribute the States of Slavery Chart and States of Slavery Student Organizer to your students. Ask them to read the information on the chart, which lists the number of slaves and total populations in the US states and territories in 1790, 1820 and 1860. Ask students why they think this information, based on census data, begins in 1790 and not earlier. (The first national US census was conducted in 1790.)
        2. Ask students to compare the number of slaves in each of the different states. Here are some questions to help students with this analysis:
        • In 1790, were there more enslaved people in New York than in some southern states? If so, which southern states had fewer enslaved people than NY? (Yes. In 1790, New York had more slaves than Kentucky, Tennessee and Delaware. New York had 21,324 slaves, Kentucky had 11,830, Tennessee had 3,417 and Delaware had 8,887. However, when comparing the percentage of enslaved people to the total number in each state, New York’s slave population was 6% of the total population, while Kentucky’s was 16%, Tennessee’s was about 10% and Delaware’s was 15%.)
        • How did the number of slaves in Georgia change from 1790 to 1860? (It increased dramatically--- from 29,364 in 1790 to 149,654 in 1820 to 462,198 in 1860. In 1860, the slave population comprised 43.7% of Georgia’s total population.)
        • In 1860, in which state did slaves make up more than 50% of the population? [South Carolina- 402,406 people out of 703,708 (57.2%) were enslaved.]
        • What 4 states had the most slaves in 1860? (Virginia, 490,865; Georgia, 462,198; Mississippi, 436,631; and Alabama, 435,080.)
        • Compare the number of slaves in South Carolina in 1860 with the total population in each of the following states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, California and Minnesota. Which number is bigger? [The number of slaves in South Carolina in 1860 - 402,406 - was larger than the total populations in each of the following states: New Hampshire (326,073), Vermont (315,098), Delaware (112,216), California (379,994) and Minnesota (172,206)].
        • Ask your students to complete the States of Slavery Student Organizer, showing which states had slaves in the years 1790, 1820 and 1860. Ask your students the following:
        • Did any northern states or territories, which became part of the US anytime after 1790 (including after 1820), have slaves? If so, which states? (Yes. Illinois, Indiana, and Kansas.)
        • Which of the northern states had slaves in 1790? (All of them except for Massachusetts.)
        • Ask your students why they think Massachusetts was the only northern state not to have slaves in 1790. Ask if they have heard the story about a slave named Mumbet. If they have, ask them to share what they know.  If they haven’t, explain that Mumbet was a slave in Massachusetts who asked a lawyer to help her attain her freedom.
        • Explain that the next segment tells the story about Mumbet and the role that Kyra Sedgwick’s ancestor, Theodore Sedgwick, played in helping secure her freedom. Ask students to find out what Mumbet did to secure her freedom and the strategy Sedgwick used to help her become free.
        • Play the Mumbet Video. After playing the segment, ask students to list the actions Mumbet took to secure her freedom. (She heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence, including the part where it mentions all men are born equal and have a right to freedom. She went to Theodore Sedgwick’s law office the next day to ask him if the law would enable her to be free as well.) Ask students to describe how Mumbet reacted when her master’s wife was about to beat Mumbet’s daughter, Lizzy, with a hot iron shovel. (She raised her arm and was hit, sparing her daughter from being hurt.)
        • Ask students to describe the strategy Theodore Sedgwick used to argue for Mumbet’s freedom. (He argued against the institution of slavery itself. He argued that since the new Massachusetts Constitution (issued in 1780) stated that all men are born free and equal, nobody could be held as a slave. He argued that if it is true that everyone is born free and equal that should hold true for black people, as well. Therefore, under the Constitution, slavery should not be allowed.)
        • Optional: Ask students to read the transcript of the Declaration of Independence and identify and discuss the lines that refer to men being free and equal. (We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. )
        • Let students know that Mumbet’s trial, as well as another trial concerning a slave named Quoc Walker, helped bring about the legal end of slavery in Massachusetts.  Optional: Ask students to find out more about the trials of Mumbet and Quoc Walker and the roles they played in helping to bring about the end of slavery in Massachusetts. (Encourage students to use a variety of resources, including websites listed at the beginning of this lesson in the Lesson Overview.)


        1. Explain that in 1865, two years after Lincoln declared the end of slavery, he was sworn in as president for his second term.  Ask students to watch the After Slavery Video to see what Lincoln asked the country to do during his 2nd Inaugural Address, and how some individuals, including Kevin Bacon’s ancestor, responded to that appeal.
        2. Play the After Slavery Video. After showing the segment, ask students to describe what Lincoln asked of the nation. (He asked the country to join together to help rebuild the nation.)
        3. Ask your students to read Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address.
        4. Ask the class to identify and discuss the line(s) where Lincoln is asking Americans to rebuild the country. (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”)
        5. Ask students how Kevin Bacon’s great-grandmother, Lydia Atkinson, responded to this call from Lincoln. (At the age of 20, she moved from New Jersey to Washington, DC, where she worked as a teacher in a school for newly freed slaves.)
        6. Discuss the fact that, in the video, Christopher Densmore of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College mentions the term “manumitting” slaves. Ask students what “manumit” means. If they don’t know, ask them to look it up. ("Manumit" means to free from slavery.)
        7. Ask your students to describe Quakers’ attitudes and actions toward manumitted slaves, based on what was presented in the previous segment.  (Quakers felt they had a responsibility to help newly freed slaves and, by the 1750s, were strongly involved in educating African Americans.)


          1. Divide the class into groups of 2-3 students. Ask each group to conduct research about slavery in one of the following northern states:
        • Connecticut
        • Massachusetts
        • New Hampshire
        • New Jersey
        • New York
        • Pennsylvania
        • Vermont

        See the resources listed in the “websites” section in the Lesson Overview for potential student use.

        1. Ask students to find out the following about each state:
        • The number of slaves that existed.
        • How slavery was abolished.
        • When slavery was abolished.
        • Additional details about slavery in that state.
        • Ask students to present their findings to the class.
        • Lead a discussion about the information presented in this lesson. During the discussion, ask students to reflect on the following:
        • Has your understanding of the United States’ history changed based on the information you have learned in this lesson? If so, how?
        • Why do you think the history of slavery in the North is less well-known than the history of slavery in the South?
        • After hearing a reading of the Declaration of Independence, Mumbet (Elizabeth Freeman) was inspired to seek her freedom. Have you ever been inspired to take action based on something you have read, heard or seen? If so,what have you done? If you ever felt that your rights were being compromised, what actions would you take to make sure that you were treated fairly?


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