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In this lesson, students will read short excerpts from slave narratives describing the importance of music in the lives of slaves. Students will then learn about spirituals through listening to songs and discussing the value of music. This lesson could also work well as a collaborative unit with the music teacher.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • demonstrate an understanding of the contributions of African Americans to American music through the genre of spirituals.
  • learn more about the experiences and culture of slaves across the South.

Teacher planning

Time required

Two to three hours

Materials needed


  • Students should have basic background knowledge of slavery in the Southern U.S.
  • Teachers should preview the slave narrative excerpts, listen to the examples of spirituals, and determine any additional vocabulary or themes that may need further explanation before students begin the activities.

Note: The slave narrative excerpts used in this lesson have been selected for grade-level appropriateness, and avoid themes such as violence and abuse often found in slave narratives, which depict the brutal realities of slavery. Links to the full-length narratives, available on the Documenting the American South website, are provided below, under Supplemental Information below. It is suggested that the full-text narratives be used only for teacher reference, due to the advanced content and disturbing themes in many slave narratives.


  1. Ask students to talk about the importance of music, either in small groups or as a class discussion. What do they like about listening to music? What emotions do they feel when they listen to music? Can music help them in any way?
  2. Introduce the concept of folk spirituals, which were songs created by slaves that used elements of African music, such as clapping, drumming, repetition of lyrics, and call-and-response, to express their religion and their experiences as slaves.
  3. Explain to students that they will be reading short parts of slave narratives, which are autobiographies written by slaves to share their life experiences. Pass out the excerpts, or read them aloud to the class.
    • Excerpt 1: Twenty Eight Years a Slave, or the Story of My Life in Three Continents (1909) by Thomas Johnson
      • Read the following introduction aloud:
        Thomas Johnson was born as a slave in Virginia. Religion was very important to him, and after slavery was ended in 1865, he became a minister and traveled to Africa and England to convert others to Christianity. Here, he writes about the risk that slaves had to take to meet in prayer groups and sing hymns and spirituals. The Jubilee Singers that Johnson mentions were a group of black musicians who performed spirituals in concerts around America and Europe after the Civil War.
    • Excerpt 2: From Log Cabin to the Pulpit, or, Fifteen Years in Slavery (1913) by William H. Robinson
      • Read the following introduction aloud:
        William H. Robinson was born into slavery in Wilmington, North Carolina, one of 12 siblings. After slavery ended in 1865, he worked for many years as a traveling singer and banjo player, then attended Central Tennessee College and became a minister. Here, he writes about the secret meanings of many spirituals. Sometimes slaves used the lyrics of spirituals to share messages with other slaves about meetings or ways to escape to the North.
    • Discussion questions: (can be discussed as a group or as an individual writing activity)
      • Thinking about what we learned about spirituals, can you see any features of spirituals in the songs that Johnson and Robinson write about (for example, repetition of lyrics or religious themes)?
      • Why do you think the slaves took the risk of being caught in order to hold prayer meetings?
  4. Play examples of spirituals for students to hear. Some suggested spirituals are: All of these songs feature religious themes, repetition of lyrics, and call-and-response. These spirituals and many others can be found in the Library of Congress’ John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip collection. Many of the Library of Congress recordings feature former slaves, or singers performing spirituals passed on to them by relatives who learned them as slaves. Teachers may also work with the music teacher to identify other spirituals to play for students. To have students understand the rhythm of the spirituals, teachers may want to have students clap together in rhythm as they listen to the songs.
  5. Lead a final discussion, asking students what they now think about the value of music. How did spirituals help the slaves? Some possible responses are that it helped them connect with other slaves, share messages, express their religion, record their experiences, hold onto their African musical heritage, or release some of the pain and pressure of life under slavery.


Teachers can assess how fully students participate in the class discussions, writing and listening activities.

Supplemental information

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Music Education (2010)
      • Grade 4

        • 4.CR.1 Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music. 4.CR.1.1 Understand how music has affected, and is reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of North Carolina. 4.CR.1.2 Understand the relationships between music...
      • Grade 5

        • 5.CR.1 Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music. 5.CR.1.1 Understand how music has affected, and is reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of the United States. 5.CR.1.2 Understand the relationships between...

    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 4

        • 4.C.1 Understand the impact of various cultural groups on North Carolina. 4.C.1.1 Explain how the settlement of people from various cultures affected the development of regions in North Carolina (languages, foods and traditions). 4.C.1.2 Explain how the artistic...
      • Grade 5

        • 5.C.1 Understand how increased diversity resulted from migration, settlement patterns and economic development in the United States. 5.C.1.1 Analyze the change in leadership, cultures and everyday life of American Indian groups before and after European exploration....

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Music Education (2001)

Grade 4

  • Goal 6: The learner will listen to, analyze, and describe music.
    • Objective 6.02: Demonstrate perceptual skills by conducting, moving to, answering questions about, and describing aural examples of music of various styles and cultures.
    • Objective 6.07: Show respect while listening to and analyzing music.

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 4

  • Goal 5: The learner will examine the impact of various cultural groups on North Carolina.
    • Objective 5.02: Describe traditional art music and craft forms in North Carolina.