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"Carried with Him Sundry Clothes": Slave Clothing from Primary Sources


When interpreting enslaved African Americans in the eighteenth century, one of the questions we must ask is 'what did they wear?' Slaves didn't write about this, and they didn't leave clothes behind for us to find. Their masters and others who interacted with slaves rarely wrote about their clothing either.

But knowing about clothing can tell you a lot about a person. Clothing can tell you what a person did for a living, how difficult or physical the work was, how much money they had, where they lived, and what was required of them.

We can find out information about slaves' lives, and their clothing, from a variety of sources you may not expect, including runaway ads, milliner's records, slave laws, and portraits, sketches, and diaries made by slave owners.

Enslaved people in North America in the eighteenth century had all different jobs, lived in all different locations, and had all different kinds of masters. They wore different things, and that diversity will be reflected in primary sources. In this lesson, students will use portraits, runaway ads, and an interactive web activity to learn what the clothing of the enslaved can reveal about their lives.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Available computers, open to the “Dress the Part” activity: (it may be helpful to also bookmark this web address in case a student accidentally quits out of the site during the lesson)
  • Virginia Gazette Runaway Ads Packet (one for each student)
  • Runaway Ads Observations Worksheet (one for each student)
  • Glossary (one for each student)
  • Image Packet
  • Image Observations Worksheet (one for each student)
  • Projector (if no projector is available, print African American interpreter images to use with an overhead projector or document camera)


  1. Summarize the introductory material for students. Remind students that a primary source is an account of an event or time period from a person who was there.
  2. Divide class into three groups. The three groups will operate independently and complete the activities simultaneously.
  3. Position Group 1 around a large table (or push desks or smaller tables together). Give each student a Runaway Ads Packet, a Glossary, and a Runaway Ads Observations Worksheet. Together, you and the students should read the Runaway Advertisements, analyze them, and fill out the Runaway Ads Observations Worksheet. You may need to leave this group occasionally to give assistance to the other two groups.
  4. Have Group 2 sit together. Give the group the Image Packet. Give each student an Image Observations Worksheet. Students should use observations from the images to fill out the worksheet.
  5. Have Group 3 complete the online activity “Dressing the Part.” Ask students to begin with the enslaved characters and work upward to gentry. The number of computers available will determine whether the students work individually, in pairs, or in small groups.
  6. Rotate the groups. Every student should have the opportunity to do each activity.
  7. Gather the class back together. Display pictures of African American interpreters for the class, one by one ( Use this opportunity to summarize some of the observations students made about the runaway ads and the images. What elements from the primary sources are reflected in the clothing choices of Colonial Williamsburg's interpreters?

Lesson Extensions

  1. Have students draw one of the people described in a runaway advertisement. On the back of the drawing, students should write a short narrative from that person's point-of-view about why they ran away in the clothing they did.

  2. Give students a copy of South Carolina's Negro Act of 1740. Brainstorm a list as a class of reasons why such a law would be passed.