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Slave Family Life on a Plantation


Just prior to the American Revolution, African Americans comprised about 20 percent of the population in the thirteen colonies. As early as 1641, slavery was legal in every colony, but the Southern colonies embraced the institution due to economic circumstances, specifically the need to raise labor-intensive crops. During the Revolutionary War more than half of all African Americans lived in Maryland and Virginia. The majority were field hands who worked on tobacco plantations and large farms. Usually, plantation slaves lived in family units and worked from sunup to sundown with Sundays off.

In this lesson, students learn about several aspects of everyday slave life on a plantation. They then create and assemble puzzles to summarize the information they learned.



Activity One

1. Make an overhead transparency of the Photograph of the Carter’s Grove Plantation Slave Quarter and display it for the class. Facilitate a class discussion using the following questions:

  • What is happening in the image?
  • What people do you see?
  • What are they doing?
  • How are they dressed?
  • What do their houses look like?
  • What kind of life do you think they live?
  • What kind of work do you think they do?
  • Do you think slaves had free time? What might they do for entertainment?
  • Is there anything in the image that surprises you? Why?

2. Infom students that they will now gather information on the following five aspects of slave family life on a plantation: kinship (family), clothing, homes, work, and play.

Activity Two  

1. Give students a Slave Family Life Graphic Organizer and the content of the feature article “To Live Like a Slave.” This information may be provided in one of the following ways, according to students’ age and ability:

a. Read the article (or parts of it) aloud. Have students retell what they learned about eighteenth-century slave family life on a plantation..

b. Divide the article into several parts. Divide the class into small groups and have each group read and analyze an assigned portion of the article.

c. Extract the pertinent information from the article and retype it for the appropriate comprehension level. Have students (individually or in small groups) read the retyped information and identify the elements of eighteenth-century slave family life.

Have students record the eighteenth-century slave family life information they learn in the appropriate sections of their graphic organizers.

OPTIONAL EXTENSION FOR STEP #1: Students may also conduct additional colonial slave family life research using the following Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Web site links:
An introduction to African American in the colonial period and biographies of selected African American slaves who lived in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Information about the slave quarter at Carter’s Grove plantation.
Information about life as a plantation slave.
Explains aspects of the daily life of an enslaved family of two.
A photo scrapbook showing a variety of colonial African American clothing.
“Dress the Part.” A Web activity in which students dress individuals from all levels of eighteenth-century society.

2. Explain to students that they will use the information they gathered to create a puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle will have information about one of the five aspects of eighteenth-century slave family life on a plantation (kinship (family), clothing, homes, work, and play). [NOTE: This may be done as a whole-class, small group, or individual students assignment.]

3. Give each student (or each small groups of students) both pages of the Puzzle Pieces for Students handout. Have students, using symbols, text, pictures, and drawings, place the information they learned about eighteenth-century slave family life on their puzzle pieces. [NOTE: There are SIX puzzle pieces—one for a title, and one for each of the five elements of slave family life. Teachers—to see how the puzzle pieces fit together, see the Assembled Puzzle Pieces—Visual Sample.

Steps to Make the Puzzle
a. Brainstorm ideas for words, symbols, pictures, and drawings for each puzzle piece.
b. Draw, color, and write on the puzzle pieces before cutting them apart.
c. Carefully cut apart the pieces and assemble the puzzle.
d. Glue the finished puzzle to a piece of construction paper.
e. Display finished puzzles around the classroom.

4. Facilitate a whole-class discussion in which students 1) summarize what they learned about eighteenth-century slave family life, 2) describe the words, symbols, pictures, and drawings they used for each puzzle piece, and 3) explain their reasons for using why they used the selected words, symbols, pictures, and drawings.

This lesson was written by Elaine Friend, elementary school teacher, Kearnerysville, West Virginia, and Chris Sink, middle school teacher, Battle Ground, Washington.