Author's note: This lesson plan is meant to accompany an essay on the historiography of antebellum black protest published in the journal The History Teacher.
The history of free African Americans in the antebellum North is a vital though understudied component of American history. For students, an understanding of black protest in the early nineteenth century contextualizes discussion of the abolitionists, who cannot properly be understood without recourse to those who inspired them, and who they claimed to represent. Additionally, the larger significances of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which brought about a revolution (though an unfulfilled one) in civil rights, are impossible to comprehend without an appreciation of a long tradition of civil rights activism stretching back to the earliest free black communities. Finally, incorporating free blacks into American history erodes stereotypes that continue to linger in textbooks and the popular historical consciousness. Slavery and racism were not southern phenomena but national ones; incorporating free blacks into the national story thus complicates considerably popular narratives of American history predicated on the triumphalism of Northern free market values.
If simply including free blacks into history courses is difficult, it is a much larger challenge to convey to students the subtleties of scholarly debates over the nature of African-American protest in the antebellum period. Few students are prepared for such discussions. College and high school textbooks now generally acknowledge the significance of free black communities in American history, but these still receive precious little analysis amid the huge range of other topics addressed in the standard survey of American history. Unsurprisingly, textbooks specializing in African-American history tend to do a far better job. Still, resources for moving beyond the lecture and textbook remain scarce.
The teaching unit included with this essay is designed to introduce students to basic concepts in the history of free blacks and black protest thought in the antebellum period. It is intended as a resource for teachers as well as an example of how educators might begin to incorporate discussions of antebellum free blacks into their class sessions. A range of historical methodologies has been presented in an effort to engage a similarly broad range of learning styles.
Ultimately, the questions raised by studying a relatively small group of marginalized Americans yields intriguing and disturbing suggestions about the nature America itself. What do we make of a nation that freed northern slaves as a consequence of the American Revolution, only to deny them equality once freed? How do our views of Jacksonian democracy change when we consider that race relations became more tension-filled at the very time when suffrage restrictions for white men fell? How do we contend with the paradox of a North that provided for the destruction of slavery after the American Revolution, but continued to deny blacks the basic rights of citizenship and in fact pioneered forms of segregation later used in the South after Reconstruction? How does our view of the coming of the Civil War change when we consider a long tradition of Northern black activists arguing as much against Northern prejudice as against Southern slavery? These questions, once the province of a handful of radical scholars, can now be broached by students in high school and college classrooms.
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