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Torn From Each Other's Arms: Slavery and the African American Family Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students
By Thomas Thurston

Family relations were often used by slaveholders to enforce obedience and submission. However, when the family unit was threatened, this could also result in acts of defiance and resistance. Using episodes from the documentary series and short selections from contemporary accounts, this teaching unit will consider the struggle to maintain family relations under the system of slavery and the terrible toll that the system placed upon African American families. Utilizing the PBS series SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, students will examine the life of Emanuel Driggus and his family, and the way in which they attempted to navigate the changing nature of slavery in 17th century Eastern Virginia. The lesson unit's culminating activity will include a creative writing assignment in which students will take incidents from the documentary and readings to create accounts of families living in slavery (a common theme in abolitionist literature).

This lesson can be used as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, or as an independent lesson for the social studies/history classroom. A basic knowledge of the slavery in the United States, as well as a familiarity with the American Revolution, is recommended.

Grade Level: 7-8

Time Allotment: Three 45-minute class periods (excluding homework time for Culminating Activity)

Subject Matter: History, Social Studies

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:
  • Understand the transformations that the institution of slavery underwent in the English Colonies.

  • Explain the impact of slavery on black families.

  • Describe the events of Emanuel Driggus and his family during the early years of slavery.

  • Discuss the experience of slaves trying to locate lost relatives and the role of placing advertisements in African American newspapers.

  • Create a short story about the circumstances related the advertisements.
From the National Standards for History for grades 5-12, available online at

Historical Thinking. Standard 1 - The student thinks chronologically. Therefore, the student is able to identify the temporal structure of a historical narrative or story: its beginning, middle, and end (the latter defined as the outcome of a particular beginning). The student thinks chronologically. Therefore, the student is able to interpret data presented in time lines and create time lines by designating appropriate equidistant intervals of time and recording events according to the temporal order in which they occurred.

Historical Thinking. Standard 2 - The student thinks chronologically. Therefore, the student is able to reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage by identifying who was involved, what happened, where it happened, what events led to these developments, and what consequences or outcomes followed; Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations but acknowledge that the two are related; that the facts the historian reports are selected and reflect therefore the historian's judgment of what is most significant about the past; Read historical narratives imaginatively, taking into account what the narrative reveals of the humanity of the individuals and groups involved--their probable values, outlook, motives, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses.

Historical Thinking. Standard 4 - The student conducts historical research. Therefore, the student is able to formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.

United States History. Standard 3C - The student understands African life under slavery. Therefore, the student is able to analyze how Africans in North America drew upon their African past and upon selected European (and sometimes Indian) customs and values to develop a distinctive African American culture.

Prep for Teachers:

Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark the Web page Want Ads for Lost Relatives 1865-1867, print out and photocopy the material on that Web page or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites listed below and video clips used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students. Make enough copies of the below handouts and worksheets for each student in your class.

Media Components:

  • SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, Episode 1, "The Downward Spiral"
For the class:

  • TV/VCR
For each student:
Copies of the following worksheets:
Online Resources

Want Ads for Lost Relatives 1865-1867
A collection of advertisements taken from "The Colored Tennessean" newspaper by Sandra G. Craighead, editor of the Newsletter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society -- Cleveland, Ohio Chapter.

Slavery and the Making of AMERICA
This site, a companion to the PBS series, SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, contains information on Emanuel Driggus and his family.

About the Author:
Thomas Thurston is the Director of Education for the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. Prior to his current position he worked at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he was project director for the award-winning Web site, the New Deal Network. He has served as an educational consultant for several previous PBS historical documentaries, including THE RISE AND FALL OF JIM CROW and BERGA: SOLDIERS OF ANOTHER WAR.
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