African American History: Climbing the Wall

Essential Question

How do historians tackle the problem of African-American genealogy prior to Emancipation?



In this lesson, students learn how the life of an enslaved person changed from the Antebellum period through Emancipation. They analyze primary source documents in order to create a timeline of an individual slave’s life and then watch a clip from the episode Bill of Sale, to confirm their findings.


Related Episode:  Bill of Sale Investigation

Jeanie Hans’ grandfather purchased a collection of Civil War memorabilia, and he was horrified by what he found inside: a bill of sale for a young enslaved girl. Hans wants to know what ever happened to the girl: Did she survive through Emancipation? Did she get married? History Detective Eduardo Pagan tackles the challenge of tracing the life of an enslaved person before Emancipation.


Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for grades 9-10, but can be adapted for use in grades 6-12. For middle school grades, the “Genealogy Timeline” reproducible can be adapted by writing in important dates and asking students to find the information that matches the dates. The primary source material can also be made more accessible by highlighting the important information in the primary sources. For the upper high school grades, lesson can be made more challenging by asking students to hypothesize about the missing details of Willoby’s life by conducting further research into the lives of enslaved people.


Suggested Unit of Study

This lesson would fit into American History units covering the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Antebellum South.





Marion County Library

Eduardo Pagan attempts to trace the life of a single slave known only as Willoby.

History Detective Eduardo Pagan attempts to trace the life of a single slave known only as Willoby. In this episode excerpt, he uses property records, wills and historical censuses to recreate a timeline of her life.



To view Willoby’s life in Official Records slideshow, click here.

To print slideshow, click here.



Genealogy Timeline


Estimated Time Required

1-2 class periods



Until the Civil War and Emancipation, the lives of most African-Americans were recorded only in property records and wills. They were considered property and recorded as such; they may or may not even have names listed on those records. But after Emancipation, following the genealogy of African Americans becomes easier. Many historians and genealogists consider the Census of 1870 a wall in researching individuals. Before 1870, records are rare and incomplete. After 1870, former slaves now have first and last names that are recorded by the Census.


Set Up


Discussion Questions

Have students brainstorm what they already know about slavery. Use the following questions to spur ideas:

  • What was the daily life of an enslaved person? ( Enslaved people could be house slaves or field slaves. They worked from sunrise to sunset, often lived in cabins with dirt floors, could have their families’ broken up when bought and sold, had no authority over their own lives, could be physically and/or sexually abused, etc.)
  • What was the Civil War?  (War between Northern states, which were in favor of abolition and federalism, and Southern states, which were in favor of slavery and states’ rights; lasted from 1861-1865)
  • What was the Emancipation Proclamation? (1863 document written and signed by Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves in the southern states)
  • What was the Atlantic Slave Trade? (Lasting from the 1600s until it was outlawed in 1808 by Congress. In the Atlantic Triangular Slave Trade, Africans were taken from Africa and traded for sugar, tobacco and cotton in the Americas. That sugar, tobacco and cotton was then. traded in England for rum and manufactured goods. The rum and manufactured goods were then delivered to Africa and traded for slaves.)
  • What was the Abolitionist Movement? (Movement before the Civil War to end slavery immediately. Famous abolitionists include John Brown, Frederick Douglas, and Harriet Tubman, who was a leader of the Underground Railroad.)
  • What was Reconstruction? (Period between 1856 and 1877 wherein the Southern states were brought back into the Union. Slavery was ended, African Americans were given rights, and many investments were made in public infrastructure, such as building schools and railroads. The Southern states were not happy; the Ku Klux Klan arose during this time.)


Explain to the class that they will be examining primary sources related to the life of a single enslaved person, a woman named Willoby. Mention that the names of enslaved people were not written in stone and spellings often changed. Divide the students into groups of 3-4 and distribute one copy of the packet Willoby’s Life in Records to each group. The documents students will study are:

  • Bill of Sale: November 23, 1829, Asa Brown sells 17-year-old Willoby to Stephen McWhite 
  • Will of Stephen McWhite: 1831, Stephen McWhite wills Willoby to his sister Mary Daniels
  • Appraisal: March 11, 1857, Appraisal of James Daniels’ property, including “Willobah,” who is valued at $1100 
  • Division of Property: 1858, Division of James’ Daniels’ property, in which Willoby is willed to his son, James Daniels
  • 1870 Census: “Willoughty” recorded as 55 years old and “keeping house”
  • 1880 Census: Willoby recorded, once again, as “housekeeper"

Students will work in their groups to fill in a timeline of Willoby’s life. Encourage the students to “Think Like a Historian” (see this lesson plan for more information on Thinking Like a Historian). Prompt students to use the following steps when investigating the documents related to Willoby’s life.

  • Sourcing: Who made this source? Where did it come from?
  • Contextualizing: Imagine the setting surrounding this source: How was the world that made this source different than our own?
  • Corroborating: What do other sources say about the information in this document? Do they agree or disagree with what this document says?
  • Close Reading: What does the document say? Is it biased? What is the tone?

Students can use the Genealogy Timeline reproducible to take notes. Encourage students to make informed guesses about Willoby’s life.

  • When and where was Willoby born? (based on the documents and what they know of the Atlantic Slave Trade)
  • When and where did Willoby die?
  • How did Willoby’s work change as she passed from owner to owner?

Once students have finished their timelines, bring them back together as a whole group. Show the video clip Marion County Library from the History Detectives episode Bill of Sale and ask students to compare the information on their timelines with the information Eduardo Pagan uncovered at the Marion County Library.

  • Was there anything you missed in the documents?
  • What is one new piece of information we learn about Willoby in this clip?

Ask students what they learned about the life of an enslaved person who lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction.

  • What is one thing about Willoby’s life that strikes you as important?
  • How did her life change from 1860 to 1870? How do the documents change between those two dates?
  • The man who found the Bill of Sale described himself as “horrified” at his discovery. What about these documents is horrifying?

Then, lead a discussion on how students used the primary sources to learn about Willoby’s life and guide their hypotheses.

  • What did you learn from these sources? How was it different from what you learned in the video clip or from other secondary sources?
  • Researching the genealogy of an enslaved person before 1870 is considered very difficult. After reviewing these documents, do you agree? How so?
  • How do historians research the lives of enslaved people prior to Emancipation?
  • What is the role of a historian? What does it meant to construct history? How does history change or remain the same depending on who is researching or constructing it?

Going Further

Have students find official documents (birth certificate, report card, marriage license, trophy or medal, photograph or video with date stamp) from their own lives and/or the lives of their family members. Using these documents, students will create timelines similar to the one they created for Willoby. How is researching the life of a family member similar to researching Willoby’s life? How is it different?


More on History Detectives

Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support the teaching of this lesson in your classroom. 









National History Standards

Historical Thinking

1. Chronological Thinking: The student thinks chronologically

2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation

4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research


US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861) 

  • Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

  • Standard 2: The course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people
  • Standard 3: How various reconstruction plans succeeded or failed


Common Core State Standards

Grades 6-8

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


Grades 9-10

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.


Grades 11-12

CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.