Lesson 1: Slavery and Free Negroes, 1800 to 1860


1. For all levels (ES, MS, and HS) begin with students’ associations with/ assumptions about slavery.

2. For HS students this could be done as a think/pair/share activity for about 10 minutes. For ES and MS

this could be done with webbing or KWHL. Either way, be sure to return to students’ assumptions after some historical context on slavery is provided. Another possibility is creating some myths and facts or true/false statements about slavery.

3. An advantage of the KWHL or webbing is that students can generate their own questions that they want to answer.

4. It might be useful to prime the pump and ask about national, regional, state, and local conditions during slavery.

5. Use the Historical Background section on slavery and the Three-part Time Line to provide a more nuanced and accurate historical account of slavery. This can be accomplished by using the Historical Background to create Teacher Talking Points or by having small groups of students work together to read and share different sections then have them report out, could be jigsaw. The goal is to provide at an appropriate developmental level a more complex historical context for this topic and to convey to students the connections between national, regional, state, and local events.

6. Once students have a clearer picture of slavery, it is time to take a look at the lives of some people who lived during this period. Students will use the primary sources to find out: Who were “Free Blacks”? How did they get “free”?

7. For HS students give them copies of Wm. Hayward Foote’s will and inventory of his death in 1846 in the original handwriting, and direct them to try transcribing it.  [NOTE: original handwriting version currently missing]

8. For a warm up with ES and MS students, teacher directs a think aloud with Foote's will and inventory, and brainstorms with students about meaning of vocabulary words. Give each student a copy of the will and inventory (and possibly have a copy on a smart board or overhead projector).

9. With HS students ask them what they notice/see. Students are likely to point out a great deal of information prior to debriefing. Get them to ask questions. Then give them a copy of the will and inventory.

10. Direct students to work in pairs or small groups and follow along as you read the will aloud. Ask students to jot down on paper what they notice and also make a note of any questions they have. These are purposely open-ended tasks, the purpose being for students to focus and think first on their own, and then to have pairs of students discuss what they found.

11. Examples of things students might notice in Wm. Foote's will include: The date of the will is 1846 – well before the Civil War, the court is in Alexandria County, Foote discusses his slaves right away, and uses words like “care and kindness” of his wife, slaves will be paid, most slaves have only first names, though some also have last names, most of Foote’s wealth was in slaves and not material possessions. Examples of questions include: meanings of unfamiliar words such as executor, executrix, emancipate, comport (agree with, be consistent with), codicil; when were these slaves actually freed?

12. Ask students to use the same process (notice and question) as they look at/read the inventory. It is useful for students to notice that, while objects are listed, slaves are valued as worth most, also that William Jasper is listed.

13. Reconvene the class as a whole and ask students to share what they noticed and the questions they had, and write their basic points on the board under Notice and Questions. Answer questions as you can. Points to clarify and emphasize include: Foote leaves the decision as to when “from time to time” to free or emancipate the named slaves up to the discretion of his wife, and for the “probable welfare of“ his slaves; the freed slaves are to receive one payment of $20 for males and $10 for females William Jasper is one of the slaves listed, but he is not actually freed until later; the average number of slaves held at this time was two – and Foote had fifty.

14. For HS students use these guiding questions:

What were the signs of daily work on the farm?

List and discuss the relative values of Foote’s property.

In what way do you understand the people who owned these possessions?

15. For ES and MS students have students infer that eighty percent of Foote’s wealth came from slaves. Begin 2nd lesson for HS students.

16. Before examining the next primary source have HS students pre-read Stephen B. Oates, “The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion.” Then have them examine:  The impact of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on the laws governing the lives of free Negroes in Virginia. What were the advantages to whites of having free Negroes register? To free Negroes of registering?

17. For ES and MS warm up have students think aloud with teacher and brainstorm why there might be a register of free blacks.

18. Have students use the next primary source, Registration of Free Negroes/Blacks in 1822, 1835, to learn more about free Negroes and to practice the analysis process. Questions to consider: Who were “Free Blacks”? How did they get “free”? Were they really free? Have students look for William Jasper, Sarah Jasper, and Thornton Gray.

19. Distribute a copy of the excerpts from Registration of Free Negroes/Blacks to each student and use the same approach – notice and question – this time reading on their own and jotting down what they notice, and questions they have, discussing in pairs, sharing out as a class, and recording students’ main points on the board.

20. Examples of what students might notice and ask: these people are identified first by their scars – why is that? What is the significance of scars to former owners? To ex-slaves? How might we identify ourselves? Color of skin, size, and age are mentioned. For Thornton Gray a key fact is that his mother was a free woman emancipated by George Washington. What is the race of the people signing the affidavit? Some are granted permission to remain in the state, but others are not – why? William and Sarah Jasper (not noted that they are married – why? legal only after war? Also earliest date for their registering as free is 1853 though Foote’s will was in 1846 – so did it take 7 years until Foote’s wife freed them?

21. Questions teachers might use include: How are Sarah and William Jasper and Thornton Gray described? Why do you think these features were noted here? Why do you think they had to ask permission to remain in Virginia as free Negroes? What year did each register?

22. Questions to guide the discussion include:

What was the impact of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on the laws governing the lives of free Negroes in Virginia?

What were the advantages to whites of having free Negroes register? To free Negroes of registering?

23. For ES and MS students, create a T chart and ask students to consider the opportunities (pros) and opportunity costs (cons) of being a free black.

24. At this point, have students predict what William Jasper’s life will be like as a free Negro. For example: how might he make a living? What rights will he have? Use the predictions to compare with what does happen in Jasper's life.

25. For ES and MS students have them think aloud and brainstorm about what connection property ownership might have to freedom. Begin 3rd lesson for ES and MS students.

26. Students will examine two more primary sources, together, to solve the problem who were free Negroes and how did they live. The primary sources are:

Thompson Javins deed of land to Wm. Jasper in 1860

1860 Property map superimposed on a mid-twentieth century county map 2

27. Direct students to use the same process (Notice/Question/Context) and work on their own, then in pairs, then share their findings.

28. Examples of what students might notice and question in the Javins deed include: the precise legal language in the deed and why it was used. That Javins was white (and they might remember that Javins earlier signed the affidavit for the registration of free Negroes). Using the map with the deed one can see that Javins owned land next to Wm. Jasper and that Jasper bought 13 acres of land for $200 in November of 1860. How did Jasper earn the money to but this land? 

29. Using the map – who were the other landholders next to or near Jasper? Were they white or “colored”? This land purchase takes place about five months before the Civil War begins – where did Jasper and other free Negroes go during the war?

30. Let students know that, once war breaks out in April 1861, it is not clear where Jasper, family and free black community go during war – maybe to a Freedman’s Village in Alexandria or Falls Church. One of Thornton Gray’s family joins the Union Army.

For ES and MS students find an early 1860s map of Northern Virginia that shows the Civil War battlegrounds. Ask students to see which battles were fought near the Jaspers’ newly purchased land and discuss what students might think or how they might feel if this had been their land.

31. The next step is to connect students’ observations and questions on the will and registration, the deed and the map to the historical context of free Negroes at this time. Again, use the relevant section of the Historical Background and the Three-Part Time Line to do this in whatever method makes sense to you and your class.

32. Discuss how students’ earlier predictions compared to what happened.

33. Be sure to make two key points:

Use the three-part timeline with National, Virginia, Jasper/Walker Family events to show the inter-relatedness of what happens.

People make choices within their historical contexts, whether it be Virginia legislators after the Nat Turner Rebellion or William Jasper and his family about registering, buying land etc.


Have ES students fill out a 3-2-1 chart and share with the class. 3 = tell three things you learned in the lesson, 2 = tell two things that surprised you, and 1 = tell one question you have.  Then, using the 3-2-1, write a paragraph that depicts what you learned in the lesson.  Be specific.

Another option is to return to the KWHL chart or web from the beginning of this lesson and have students write on their own and then contribute as a class to the “L” (learned) column about slavery and free Negroes.

Have MS or HS students write diary entries from the perspective of a slave owner, wife of a slave owner who has died, and/or free Negro. Include at least three entries, supporting your writing with historical events and information gathered from the primary sources studied.

Have HS students create a list of five to ten myths and facts about slavery and free Negroes using the informatin in the Historical Background as well as details from this lesson's primary sources.  Students will need to include an explanation of why or how the myths are false.