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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Slave kneeling
- On the abolition circuit, selections from black activists' accounts, 1840s (PDF)
- Facts for the People of the Free States, pamphlet of an anti-slavery society, 1847 (PDF)
- The Anti-Slavery Harp, songs for anti-slavery meetings compiled by William Wells Brown, 1848

The image of a chained and kneeling slave at right is the well-known symbol of abolitionism, first used by an English anti-slavery society in the 1780s and later adopted by American abolitionists, as seen in the female slave image engraved in 1835 by Patrick Reason, "A Colored Young Man of the City of New York." The names of black abolitionist leaders are well known to students of American history, including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, and Samuel Cornish (co-founder of The Colored American; see Theme III: COMMUNITY, #6, The Black Press).

What led many free African Americans to be active in the abolitionist movement? The answer may seem obvious, but consider the dangers of leaving the security of anonymity to "go public" as a spokesman for a polarizing issue. In the selections here from abolitionists' accounts of travelling the abolition circuit in northern states, we read of their being cursed by whites, egged and stoned by mobs, finding one's horse mutilated, and barely escaping recapture and lynching.
  • On the abolition circuit. Among the most effective abolitionist speakers were former slaves—men and occasionally women who had fled the South and become active in the anti-slavery movement, often exposing themselves to as much danger of injury and death as they had experienced in the confines of slavery. Accounts from the slave narratives of Henry Bibb, James Lindsay Smith, and Frederick Douglass are included here, as well as a newspaper account by Martin Robinson Delany, a freeborn black activist. How do these men deal with the risks and hardships of the abolition circuit? What do they deem successes?

  • Facts for the People of the Free States. This pamphlet was published in 1847 by the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, whose leaders included white and black abolitionist leaders. What "facts" are presented, and how? For what audience? For what impact?

  • The Anti-Slavery Harp; A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. This song collection was compiled in 1848 by the abolition activist and former slave William Wells Brown to spur the abolition movement. Read Brown's preface and select several songs to read, and sing. ("Air" refers to the music to which the lyrics should be sung.) Compare the songs to those of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (see The Making of African American Identity: Vol. III, 1918-1968).
Consider including one or more anti-slavery addresses by black clergymen in your readings (see Supplemental Sites below). (20 pages, plus songs you may choose to print from The Anti-Slavery Harp.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did black abolitionists deal with the dangers of travelling the abolition circuit?
  2. How did they maintain courage and optimism through their ordeals?
  3. What did they deem successes from their efforts?
  4. What "facts" are presented in the pamphlet Facts for the People of the Free States? What illustrations?
  5. Why would the anti-slavery society select these facts and illustrations as the most effective to include in the brief pamphlet?
  6. How does the pamphlet's almanac-like format affect its anti-slavery message?
  7. What themes are emphasized in the anti-slavery songs? What emotions are tapped?
  8. Consider the songs' titles. How do they reflect (a) the goals of the abolitionist movement, (b) the leadership of the movement, (c) the times?
  9. Judging from William Wells Brown's preface and his song selections, what value do the anti-slavery songs provide to the abolitionist movement?
  10. How do the songs differ from those of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s? What do these differences illustrate?

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

On the abolition circuit:   8 (narrative and newspaper accounts)
Facts for the People of the Free States: 12 (anti-slavery pamphlet; large
     digital images)
The Anti-Slavery Harp: View online (abolitionist songs)
TOTAL 20 pages

Supplemental Sites
Abolition movement, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH)
"Dandy Jim [of Caroline]," an anti-slavery song, from Public Domain Music (
Addresses by black clergymen on the abolition of slavery, in, from Dr. Quintard Taylor, University of Washington-Seattle

-Engraving depicting a female kneeling slave, by Patrick Reason, "A Colored Young Man of the City of New York, 1835" (caption at base of engraving). Massachusetts Historical Society. Permission pending.
-Woodcut depicting a kneeling male slave captioned "Am I Not a Man and a Brother,?" from the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's antislavery poem, "Our Countrymen in Chains"; image originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s; more information at Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, #LC-USZC4-5321.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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