John Legend and Wanda Sykes

Lesson Plan – Free, but not Free: Life of Free Blacks before the Civil War

(Click here for a printer-friendly version of this lesson.)

LESSON TITLE: Free, but not Free: Life of Free Blacks before the Civil War

GRADE LEVEL: Grades 9-11

TIME ALLOTMENT: Two 45-minute class periods


The 2012 series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the complex tapestry of American history through the stories of celebrity guests. This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores the life of free blacks in the United States prior to the Civil War, using video segments from Finding Your Roots Episode 9, highlighting the family histories of comedian Wanda Sykes and musician John Legend.

In the Introductory Activity, students explore the lives of free blacks in the U.S. before the 13th Amendment was passed, and brainstorm ways blacks attained their freedom. Students view a segment exploring the lives of Wanda Sykes’s free black ancestors in the 1850s and learn how researchers discovered they were free.

In Learning Activity 1, students explore how Wanda Sykes’s ancestors gained their freedom in the 1600s. Students also view segments about how John Legend’s ancestor Peyton Polly gained his freedom and how his children were freed, kidnapped, sold back into slavery, and eventually freed again. In Learning Activity 2, students read articles about the Polly family to gain new insights about the family’s road to freedom. Students learn about how slaves gained freedom by serving in the Revolutionary War.

In the Culminating Activity, students reflect upon the themes presented in the lesson and write reflection essays.


American History; Language Arts; Social Studies


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

– Describe several ways in which blacks attained freedom prior to the Civil War.

– Name restrictions placed upon free blacks and the dangers they encountered prior to the abolition of slavery.

– Discuss the details of Peyton Polly’s family’s tough road to freedom.

– Explain why the governor of Ohio tried to rescue the Polly children after they were kidnapped.

– Describe reasons why free blacks bought members of their own families as slaves.


Common Core/English Language Arts Standards for History/Social Studies:

– Key Ideas and Details:

– Grades 9-10: 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: 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.

– Grades 11-12: RH.11-12.3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

– Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

– Grades 11-12: RH.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

– Grades 9-10: RH.9-10.9. Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources. Grades 11-12: RH.11-12.9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

National Standards for History Basic Education

United States History Content Standards for Grades 5-12

– Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801 to 1861):

– Standard 3B: The student understands how the debates over slavery influenced politics and sectionalism. Therefore the student is able to:

– Analyze how the debates over slavery–from agitation over the “gag rule” of the late 1830s through the war with Mexico–strained national cohesiveness and fostered rising sectionalism.

Historical Thinking Standards for Grades 5-12

– Standard 1: Chronological Thinking: The student thinks chronologically. Therefore, the student is able to:

– Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration in which historical developments have unfolded, and apply them to explain historical continuity and change.



Finding Your Roots, Episode 9, selected segments

Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

Clip 1: “Wanda Sykes’s Free Black Ancestors in the 1850s

A look at the lives of Wanda Sykes’s ancestors in the 1850s and how a marriage certificate proves their free status.

Clip 2: “Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s

A look at how Wanda’s black ancestors became free in the 1600s.

Clip 3: “The Story of Peyton Polly

A look at how John Legend’s ancestor, Peyton Polly, attained his freedom.

Clip 4: “The Story of Peyton Polly’s Children

The story of the kidnapping of Peyton Polly’s children and their journey back to freedom.

Clip 5: “Fighting for Freedom

An overview of how the Revolutionary War helped slaves attain their freedom.


For use in Learning Activity 2:

The Polly Negro Family (Ironton Register, February 2, 1860)

This document is a message from Governor Dennison of Ohio in 1860 about the kidnapping of members of the Polly family from Ohio in 1850.

Justice for former slaves 162 years later

This article describes justice given to members of the Polley (also spelled “Polly”) family 162 years after their ancestors were kidnapped.


For the Class:

Computer, projection screen, and speakers (for class viewing of video clips).


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson. Prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark all websites you plan to use in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.