Teaching the Difficult History of Slavery Through Primary Documents

Kelly Rodgers

Kelly Rodgers

Kelly Rodgers teaches history at Fulton Science Academy, a public charter high school in Alpharetta, Georgia. She is also a contributing writer for history textbooks. When she was asked to prepare a documentary resource on Georgia history for the state’s 8th grade social studies curriculum, “Georgia Studies,” she drew upon her studies in the Master of Arts in American History and Government Degree program (MAHG), offered by the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.

Rodgers knew that using primary documents was critical to the success of her curriculum. Discussing slavery can arouse tensions – “but not when you use original documents,” Rodgers says. “Then it’s not me talking about what slavery was like; it’s somebody else. Teachers can call up the voices of those who created, perpetuated and suffered under the institution and let them tell the story.”

Through her study in Ashbrook’s MAHG program, Rodgers says, “I learned how to teach from original documents, and I think I do it well. I love teaching this way. Almost every single day I use documents from the website (Ashbrook’s online library of primary texts). It’s a phenomenal resource.”

“Textbooks are unable to go into all the ramifications of a system that allows some people to own other people,” Rodgers said. Her lesson plans introduce students to the original charter for the Georgia colony, which prohibited slavery, and contrasts this with a petition from later settlers who asked that slavery be admitted. Reading these, students discover the political ideas and economic motives involved in 18th and 19th century debates about slavery. Students wrestle with the contradiction between slavery and American founding principles when they compare the argument of Alexander Stephens, who defended slavery as the “cornerstone” of southern society, to Lincoln’s argument that slavery undermined democracy. When students wonder how it was possible to keep a group of people forcibly in bondage, they find answers to this question in the first-hand accounts of escaped slaves.

Although she designed her lesson plans for eighth graders, Rodgers used the primary sources she gathered to good effect in the standard and advanced placement US history classes she taught this fall. “Finally I had been able to put the material together to be able to teach this subject in depth.”

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