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Lesson Three: Comparing and Contrasting the Individual Experiences of African Americans in the 19th Century

Questions for Lesson Three

Students will compare and contrast selected experiences recounted in the ex-slave narratives from the Federal Writer's Project and reproduced here by the New Deal Network. This focused investigation will enable students to:

  • Realize the richly varied experiences encountered by African Americans in the 19th century.
  • Compare and contrast the life histories of ex-slaves interviewed during the 1930s.
  • Interrogate primary sources in an effort to construct their own understanding and generalizations about events from the past.


Informational Content:

Students will investigate selected portions of the oral histories collected by interviewers of the Federal Writer's Project during the 1930s. Specifically students will search the various narratives for comments on particular topics. Students will then be able to compare and contrast the variety of experiences encountered by ordinary African-American men and women during:

  • Slavery
  • Reconstruction
  • The Late 19th Century


  • Historians attempting to generalize about life in the past must make choices as they select from the myriad of actual experiences recounted by African Americans who had experienced slavery.

  • Our own understanding of what life was like for African Americans during the 19th century will depend upon the sources we select and the personal bias that we employ as we attempt to reconstruct the past.

  • African Americans underwent a wide range of experiences throughout the 19th Century.


  • To work with primary sources.
  • To Describe and summarize the content of individual texts for the benefit of other students.


Students will work with selected portions of the American Slave Narratives collected by the New Deal Network and the hypertext search system described below and which accompanies this lesson plan.

To prepare for this lesson, teachers will want to preview and perhaps download one or more of the narratives found in the collection. Students should be well prepared for the colorful and sometimes difficult language that they will encounter. Teachers will want to highlight issues complicating the task that awaits both the professional and student historian who seek to make sense of the past.

This lesson is built around a hypertext index, which will enable students to navigate the various narratives thematically. (See, for example, Question 1.) The screen that you will see is divided into three sections.

The top section or frame contains a number of inquiry questions keyed to the topics and themes contained within the index. Teachers might select a particular question to investigate as an entire class or assign a particular question to individuals or a small group of students.

The second section or left-hand frame contains the index. Students may access an entire interview or a particular section of an interview by clicking on the appropriate link. The Index is developed chronologically around the three main topical periods most commonly encountered in the interviews:

  • The Era of Slavery in the years just preceding the Civil War
  • The Era of Reconstruction
  • The Late 19th Century

Each chronological topic is further subdivided into the themes most commonly considered in textbooks and by students in secondary classrooms. These include but are not limited to:

  • Conditions
  • Daily Life
  • Education
  • Family
  • Religion
  • Work

Effective use of this index will allow students and their teacher, for example, to call up sections of the interviews in which the narrator recalls the conditions of slavery or the nature of education for African Americans during the late 19th century.

The third section or right-hand frame will allow students and their teachers to view the beginning of the portion of the text they have requested from the index. A careful analysis of the sections provided will give students of 19th century life in the African American community a rich treasure of memories and an insight into the complex task of doing history.

An Overview of the Activity:

Teachers will want to adapt the structure of this activity to the suitability of the available technology. Slight variations in the tasks assigned to students may be desirable depending upon the number of computers at hand.

Students will work together in three groups to develop profiles of African American life during three important time periods in the 19th century. Individuals in each group will investigate a different aspect of African American life during one of the time periods and then, share his/her findings with the other members of the group. When students in all three groups have had a chance to meet together to create a "typical" profile for the time period assigned, they will discuss as a class how and in what ways, life changed for African Americans during the mid to later half of the 19th century.


Teachers might begin by selecting one of the ex-slave narratives to show to the class as an example of the kind of text with which they will be working. Lead students through a discussion about the value of using primary sources in investigating the past while also cautioning them regarding the issues involved in using interviews such as these. Prepare them for the language they will encounter and which may take them by surprise. Consider that the prevailing standards of equality and the atmosphere of multiculturalism which prevail in the 1990s were not the same as those of the pre-Civil Rights 1930s. Students should also be reminded that many of the men and women who are the subjects of the ex-slave narratives were well into their 70s or 80s at the time of the interview; that they were in many cases quite young when they experienced the events they describe; and that the socio-economic and racial background of the interviewer and narrator were often different. Teachers might offer such questions as:

  • How would these factors influence the credibility of the interview?
  • Should historians ignore these sources knowing that some of these circumstances may have affected the outcome?
  • How do historians make decisions about who to believe and how much to believe?

Assign students to the three chronological groups:

  1. Slavery
  2. Reconstruction
  3. The Late 19th Century

Students should then determine among themselves how to distribute the investigation of the various themes within each of the chronological periods. Teachers may wish to hold individual students accountable for their work by requiring that their findings be formalized, perhaps as an outline.

When students have had sufficient time to conduct their investigations, they should return with their findings to the larger (chronological) group to which they were assigned. They will need to compile their data and determine how to share the overall results. Here again, teachers may wish to provide a framework for this segment of the activity. Perhaps a multimedia presentation using Power Point or Hyperstudio may be appropriate. And, students may wish to consult other appropriate websites to confirm or amplify findings and import graphics that will illustrate their conclusions.

When students in their chronological groups have completed generalizing about the overall findings of their topic, the teacher may lead a discussion or require an essay in which the class explores the issues suggested by their investigations. The following questions provide an example of how the teacher might guide this portion of the lesson:

  • Did life change significantly for African Americans during the three periods studied? If not, why not? If yes, how? In what ways?
  • What issues if any did you confront as a student historian seeking to come to an understanding about this aspect of the past? How did you resolve these issues?
  • Are your findings consistent with the information provided in your textbook? If not, how can you account for the difference?

Any one of these questions might be used to inspire a final summative essay if further assessment is necessary. If available, teachers may wish to employ some of the new technologies illustrated in this lesson as they assign the essay to students. For example, the essay may be written and then saved in html, allowing for hyperlinks to web-based resources to be embedded in the text of their essay. Many html authoring programs will allow for this with a minimum of technical expertise.

Go to Questions for Lesson Three.

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