Slavery and Freedom in American History and Memory

The Study of Slavery and Freedom in American History

In 2005 ACES, in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University and funded through a federal Teaching American History grant, embarked on a three-year professional development program for selected ACES middle and high school teachers on the subject of “Slavery and Freedom in American History and Memory.” The three year project will focus on slavery and its legacy, emphasizing its interrelationship with politics, economy, labor movement, religion, ideologies, culture, family life, migrations, and international relations. Leading historians will introduce participating teachers to new scholarship on slavery and its legacy through monthly History Forums, which will combine lectures, readings, and primary document workshops. Working with historians, archivists, and curriculum specialists, our participating teachers will explore and develop strategies for introducing these themes and documents into their middle school classrooms. These forums will be supplemented with Saturday field trips and professional development days, curriculum development workshops, teacher-initiated history projects, and a yearly Summer Institute.

Slavery played a profound role in the history of the United States. The wealth created by the unpaid labor of African Americans helped to underwrite the country’s industrial revolution and subsequent economic strength. That wealth created tremendous political power for slave holders and their representatives. African slaves brought with them their many cultures, languages, and values, which helped to shape America and its unique culture. Enduring a brutally oppressive system, African slaves developed a deep commitment to liberty and became a living testament to the powerful ideal of freedom.

This program means to examine what James Horton has called “the great contradiction at the heart of American democracy—that a freedom-loving people tolerated bondage that violated the values they professed to hold dearest.” Slavery and Freedom in American History and Memory will examine the determination of black and white Americans to have our nation live up to the principals embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and our other founding documents during slavery and its aftermath.

In delivering the content about slavery and freedom in our nation’s history, special attention will be paid to helping teachers present this information as a unifying theme. It is important for teachers to understand and be able to deliver instruction that acknowledges the interconnected nature of historical events and themes that all too often are presented as disconnected. Without thematic organization, the teaching and learning of U.S. History can be reduced to the simple memorization of facts and events that get presented one after another. The partners of this grant seek to help teachers view history as a continuum—with issues of slavery, freedom, and civil rights as a central theme to understanding who we are as a nation. Historians engaged in this project as guest lectures have been chosen both for their depth of knowledge in a specific historical area as well as their demonstrated ability to put these specific events in a broader context of U.S. History.