1) Ask students to describe what the 13th Amendment accomplished and when it was passed. (It abolished slavery and was passed in 1865).
2) Ask students to consider whether there were free blacks before the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. If students say “yes,” ask them to think about how blacks became free before the end of slavery. (Accept all answers.) Ask students to consider when they think blacks might have first been free in the U.S. (Accept all answers.)
3) Explain that this lesson focuses on free blacks in the United States prior to the Civil War, using segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which explores the history of the United States through the family stories of well-known Americans. This lesson uses segments from a Finding Your Roots episode highlighting the family histories of comedian Wanda Sykes and musician John Legend.
4) Let students know you will be showing a video segment featuring Wanda Sykes’s free African American ancestors. As students view the clip, ask them to observe how researchers knew that Wanda’s ancestors were free and not slaves. Also, ask students to find out restrictions imposed upon free blacks like Wanda’s ancestors.
5) Play the clip “Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1850s.” After showing the segment, ask students to discuss how researchers knew Wanda’s ancestors in Virginia were free. (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). (The marriage certificate, dated in 1853, 8 years before the Civil War began, shows that Wanda’s great, great, great grandparents John Francis and Elizabeth Banks were free, since only free people were able to legally marry.)
6) Ask students to discuss what life was like for free blacks in the South in the 1850s. (They were always in danger. Laws in various states prohibited them from voting, testifying against white people in court, and marrying across the color line. In Virginia, free people of color had to carry their papers with them to prove they were free. If they didn’t have free papers they could be thrown in jail or sold into slavery. Even when people had proper paperwork, sometimes their paperwork was taken away from them and torn up.)
LEARNING ACTIVITY 1
1) Ask students to brainstorm how they think Wanda’s ancestors became free in the first place. (Accept all answers.)
2) Introduce the next segment by letting students know that you are now going to show a segment that explores how Wanda’s ancestors on her father’s side of the family gained their freedom.
3) Play the clip “Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). After showing the segment, ask students how Wanda’s black ancestors gained their freedom. (Her 9th great grandmother, Elizabeth Banks, was white and her 9th great grandfather was a black slave. Since the mother was free, her child was also free.)
4) Ask students to discuss the ways that most slaves gained their freedom. (They could be given freedom by their previous owners in their wills. Also, if a child’s mother was free, the child was also free. However, if the mother was a slave, the child was also a slave.)
5) Explain that now you are going to show video segments focusing on musician John Legend’s 5th great grandfather, Peyton Polly. As students view the segments, ask them to find out how John Legend’s ancestor gained his freedom and what happened to his children after Peyton was freed.
6) Play the clip “The Story of Peyton Polly.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). After playing the segment, ask students to describe how Peyton Polly gained his freedom. (His master freed Peyton, Peyton’s brother, and son upon his death in his will. His master also left Peyton land and money to start his life as a free man.)
7) Ask students to describe what happened to Peyton’s seven children that had been enslaved in Kentucky. (Peyton’s brother Douglas purchased them. Then Peyton and his children escaped to Ohio to freedom.)
8 ) Ask students to discuss why Peyton’s brother, a former slave, might have purchased his relatives. (In order to protect them, so that they couldn’t be harmed by someone else.)
9) Ask students to predict what happened to Peyton and his children after escaping to Ohio. (Accept all answers.)
10) Play the clip “The Story of Peyton Polly’s Children.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). Ask students to describe what happened to Peyton and his children after escaping to Ohio. [A band of armed, white men from Kentucky crossed the Ohio River and broke into Peyton’s home, kidnapping all eight children and taking them back to Kentucky. The kidnappers separated and sold the children (ages 4-17) to masters in Kentucky and Virginia.]
11) Ask students what steps Peyton took to get his children back. (He went to the local prosecutor, who wrote Ohio Governor Rubin Wood about the Polly family. The governor intervened and sent someone to Kentucky and Virginia to investigate the matter. The House, Senate, and Governor of Ohio did everything they could to try to rescue the Polly family. They sent investigators to find the kidnappers and spent thousands of dollars on lawyers. In Kentucky, the attorney general ordered the immediate release of the Polly children enslaved there. The state of Virginia refused to free the remaining four Polly children who were enslaved in Virginia.)
12) Ask students to explain what finally led to the freedom of all the Polly children. (The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which officially ended slavery.)
13) Lead a discussion about Peyton Polly and his family. Ask students to share their thoughts about what happened to the Polly children. Ask students to discuss why they think the governor of Ohio tried to free the Polly children. (He didn’t want people from other states coming into his state to kidnap people and take them out of the state.)
LEARNING ACTIVITY 2
1) Divide students into small groups. Ask each group to read one of the following articles about the Polly family. As students read the articles, ask them to find out additional information about the story of the Polly family:
2) After students have read the articles, ask each group to share its findings with the class.
3) Ask students to discuss new insights they have gained from the articles about the story of Peyton Polly and his family.
4) Lead a discussion about the ways in which slaves achieved freedom prior to the passage of the 13th amendment. (Possible answers: Through provisions in masters’ wills or if they were born to a free woman.)
5) Ask students to view the next segment to learn how the Revolutionary War helped blacks attain their freedom.
6) Play the clip “Fighting for Freedom.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). After playing the segment, ask students to discuss how the Revolutionary War helped blacks attain their freedom. (Slaves from the New England states could fight in the Revolutionary War with permission from their masters. Upon completing their service, they would be granted freedom. In Virginia, slaves could not legally fight in the war, but some owners claimed their slaves were free to get them to fight in their place. In 1783, a law was passed in Virginia that granted freedom to anyone who served as soldiers in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.)
1) Lead a discussion about the ways that free blacks tried to avoid danger and preserve their freedom for themselves and their relatives. (Possible topics to include: African Americans moved to states like Ohio where they could live freely. Some free blacks, like Peyton Polly’s brother, purchased family members as slaves so they could protect them and eventually bring them to freedom.)
2) Ask students to do one of the following:
- Imagine you lived in Peyton Polly’s time and you are a lawyer representing Peyton Polly. Write a letter to the government of Virginia outlining the reasons why his children should be returned to him and freed from slavery.
- Write an essay comparing and contrasting the lives of Wanda Sykes’s free ancestors in Virginia in the 1850s and the life of Peyton Polly and his family.
3) Ask students to share their writings with the class.