Teaching about slavery through newspaper advertisements
In this lesson for grades 8 and 11, students will analyze a selection of advertisements related to slavery from an 1837 newspaper in order to enhance their understanding of antebellum North Carolina, U.S. history, and the history of American slavery.
A lesson plan for grades 8–12 English Language Arts and Social Studies
Students will learn about the experiences of enslaved people and the attitudes of slave holders in antebellum North Carolina by analyzing a selection of advertisements related to slavery printed in the Carolina Watchman newspaper from Salisbury, North Carolina in 1837.
- Students will enhance their understanding of antebellum North Carolina, U.S. history, and the history of American slavery.
- Students will connect the past to the present by comparing advertisements from the nineteenth century to those in modern newspapers.
- Students will gain experience analyzing primary source documents and will learn more about working with historical newspapers while developing their own thoughtful, original analyses that are well-supported by historical evidence.
- A North Carolina history textbook
- Classified advertising sections from modern newspapers. Save classified advertisements from your own local newspaper for several weeks with a goal of having a section of classifieds for each pair of students in your class. It doesn’t matter if the classified ads are all from the same newspaper or if there are duplicates of the same edition and date — you only need to have enough sections of modern classified ads that each pair of students can look through one together. Weekend sections may be more extensive and would be preferable, but any classified advertising should be sufficient. You could also ask your colleagues to save newspapers for you or invite students who receive a newspaper subscription at home to save classified ads for a few weeks and bring them in for this activity.
- Highlighters, colored pens, or pencils in three colors for each pair.
- Images and transcriptions of advertisements from the Carolina Watchman of January 7, 1837. Note that this collection of advertisements represents just a small portion of the resources that will be digitized as a part of the North Carolina Newspaper Digitization Project of the North Carolina State Archives.
- Transcriptions of advertisements from the Carolina Watchman for the entire year of 1837. (PDF)
- Internet access so students can access primary and secondary resources, either individually or in small groups. If necessary, students can take turns using computer resources while other students work with print sources.
- Optional: Primary source analysis handout, based on the questions in “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students,” by Kathy Walbert. (Note: the attached handout can be used as-is, but the author strongly recommends adapting it to meet the needs of your class. You may want to add additional questions; ask students to look for key words, topics, or concepts that are relevant to what they’re learning about; or identify specific elements of the article you would like students to engage with.)
- Students should have writing materials available to take notes during discussions and group activities.
Time required for lesson
Two to three class periods.
Students should be familiar with North Carolina history up to the antebellum period and should have been introduced to the basic history of slavery in the southern U.S. North Carolina history students should have learned about the changes to the state constitution in 1835.
This plan relies heavily on primary sources. The following resources can help students learn to analyze primary sources like the ones used in this lesson plan more effectively. If your students have little experience with primary sources, they may want to explore some of these web-based resources and practice working with historical documents, or you may want to review these resources so that they can provide you with some ideas for talking about primary sources with your students:
- “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students” by Kathryn Walbert from LEARN North Carolina
- “Scholars in Action: Analyze a Colonial Newspaper” from History Matters at George Mason University
- Ask students to form pairs and hand out a section of modern classified advertising to each pair. Ask students to work together to locate three specific kinds of sources: (1) ads offering rewards, (2) ads placed by people seeking to purchase something, and (3) legal advertisements announcing public sales or auctions. They should find as many of these ads as possible and use highlighters or colored pens or pencils to circle the ads, assigning one color to each type. (This step will facilitate later discussion).
- When all of the students have located ads reflecting each category, begin a whole class discussion by dividing the blackboard, whiteboard, or overhead into three parts, one for each category, and ask students to talk about what they noticed about the ads in each category. The teacher should facilitate the discussion by writing key terms and observations on the board/overhead. You may wish to ask questions such as:
- What kinds of items are typically being advertised?
- What details do people tend to include when they have lost something?
- What have they usually lost?
- Why do you think they want it back?
- When people want to buy something, what kinds of information do they usually include?
- What are they usually trying to buy?
- Do you get a sense of why they want the items they are trying to buy?
- What are the circumstances of the public sales and auctions?
- Do you learn anything about what will be available for sale?
- Let students know that they will be spending the rest of the day working with some similar ads from the Carolina Watchman newspaper from Salisbury, NC in 1837. Students will return to their working pairs to analyze the advertisements from the Carolina Watchman of January 7, 1837. Hand out copies of the advertisements from that day’s edition or refer students to the online version of the advertisements. (Images and transcriptions of the advertisements are available.) Ask students, in particular, to find advertisements related to rewards offered for something lost, people looking to buy something, and announcements of public sales and auctions (the same categories used in modern ads). Students can use the same color coding to identify those ads if the instructor is using printed copies that will not be reused by future classes.
After spending a little bit of time identifying several ads from the three key categories, students should select three specific ads to work with more deeply and, while working with those three advertisements, they should consider the kinds of questions introduced in “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students” by Kathryn Walbert from LEARN North Carolina. Students will discover quite quickly that the categories of ads that they are exploring will deal almost exclusively with enslaved people.
Teachers may find it very helpful to have students complete the primary source analysis handout (listed under “Materials Needed” above). The questions, which will help guide students’ analysis of the advertisements, are based on the article “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students” by Kathryn Walbert. Of course, you should feel free to adapt this handout, deleting or altering questions, or adding any additional questions that might connect to previous or upcoming activities. Each student should complete his or her own copy of the teacher-created worksheet, although since students are working in pairs, they should be informed that it is fine if their answers are quite similar to or the same as those of their partner.
As they work together, students should have their textbooks handy so that they can read about North Carolina in the 1830s during the part of their analysis that will deal with the historical context of the source. The instructor should circulate throughout the room to make sure that pairs are on task, to answer any questions that students may have, and to ask further questions to push students to think more critically about the sources.
In classrooms with computer access, students could compare their own completed analysis of these advertisements with that of historian Kathryn Walbert, who answered the same questions about the January 7, 1837 classified advertisements related to slavery in the interactive web document “Reading Primary Sources: Newspaper Advertisements“
- When all students have had a chance to complete their analyses, invite them to return to a full class discussion of their findings. You might ask students the following questions:
- What is being advertised in the Carolina Watchman in 1837?
- What surprised you?
- How did these ads compare to the modern ads we looked at earlier?
- What kinds of details did they include?
- Focusing on the ads about enslaved people, what can we tell about the lives of slaves based on these ads?
- What can we tell about slave holders?
- What else did you want to know about the individual people mentioned?
You may find it helpful to invite students to take notes and to write down key ideas on the board/overhead as the discussion unfolds, perhaps even using an idea web or graphic organizing strategy to show connections between ideas.
- As a closing activity, ask students to get out paper and a pen or pencil. They should chose one advertisement that they read today and focus on it, writing the first two lines of the advertisement at the top of their page so the instructor will know which advertisement they chose. Have students free-write about the advertisement, writing what they can figure out about the people mentioned in the ad from its text and writing their own views about how these individuals might have felt, what their goals might have been, or whatever else comes to mind. Free-writing should be just a “brain dump” that allows students to get their ideas out onto paper so that they can work with them more effectively at a later time.
For more information about free-writing and other brainstorming strategies, many of which are useful as class discussion starters as well as writing strategies, the UNC Writing Center has an excellent handout available.
Collect these ideas to hand out again on the next day. You may wish to read them overnight to see what students are thinking about and to help with planning the next day’s activities. Free-writing should not be evaluated based on grammar, spelling, organization, or other mechanics — rather, it should be considered a brainstorming strategy. Students who engage thoughtfully with the assignment should be given full credit for their participation.
- Homework — After day one, students can be invited to review sections of their textbook that deal with American slavery, to provide a refresher on the topic before the delve more deeply into their work with the Carolina Watchman.
Optional: If you do not have time for additional research projects or need to move on to other topics, you can stop this lesson plan here, having allowed students to learn more about slavery first-hand with the January 7, 1837 advertisements. But if you have the time available for a more in-depth project, day two will provide more opportunities for students to conduct their own research and gain a deeper understanding of the topic.
- Hand back students’ free-writing and ask them to share what struck them as especially interesting and what they were still wondering about from the advertisements they read the previous day. You may wish to write down ideas that come up again and again on the board as the discussion unfolds so that students can start to see emerging themes and the connections between their ideas.
- Tell students that the advertisements they responded to the day before represented just a single day’s classified advertising. A full year of the Carolina Watchman’s advertisements related to enslaved people has been transcribed for students’ use and, in today’s class, they will be working with that collection of advertisements to gain a fuller picture of slavery in North Carolina in 1837. Let students know that they will not be responsible for reading all of the advertisements. Instead, they will be gathering information that they will use to write a final project later.
- Invite students to choose from among the following topics for their research and final projects, or others of your own choosing. Once students have chosen a topic that looks interesting to them, they can start to explore the advertisemtents related to slavery from the 1837 Carolina Watchman (PDF).
Students will be working on computers as they conduct their research. If there are not enough computers in your computer lab for each student to have his or her own, students can work in small groups. If students are working in groups, all members of a group should be working on the same research topic. Their final projects will be done individually, but if each group member is working on the same topic, they will be able to conduct their research together on the same computer. Remind students that, as they work with these documents, they can use full-text searching in their Internet browser to search for specific words that may be of interest to them or that may help them answer their own research questions. (In most browsers, using CTRL-F will allow you to search for a specific term.)
Option A: Common threads
Read through as many advertisements as necessary to start to identify some common threads. You might notice, for example, some similarities in the ways that slave holders describe runaway slaves, or the assumptions that slave holders make about the reasons why people might have run away or the destinations that they were trying to reach. Try to identify at least three or four common threads or themes that interest you and identify a few advertisements that will illustrate each. Print out those advertisements for future reference and take notes on your observations about them — what strikes you as interesting or significant about each?
Then write a three- to five-page essay in which you analyze those common threads. What do they reveal about the lives of enslaved people? What do they reveal about the perspectives and attitudes of slave holders? What perspectives on slavery do these advertisements offer us that are different from what we can learn from other sources? (In other words, why do these sources matter?) Be sure that the resulting essay has a strong thesis and that you use evidence from the advertisements to support your main arguments.
Option B: What happened before and after?
Read through a large number of advertisements related to runaway slaves (at least 15). Then choose one advertisement to serve as the focus of your paper (it should not be one of the advertisements from January 7, 1837 that we analyzed in class).
Write a three- to five-page essay in which you do the following:
- Based on this ad, describe what you know about the person or people who ran away (name, age, sex, physical description, distinguishing marks, special skills, previous slave holders or locations, etc.) Also describe what the ad reveals about the slave holder’s assumptions about why the slave(s) ran away or where the runaway(s) might be headed.
- Using secondary sources to provide support for your arguments, write about why the person or people described in this ad might have run away. What were the conditions for slaves in North Carolina in the 1830s and why might they have been trying to escape them? Where do you think they might have been trying to go and what was their ultimate goal? What were the risks and possible downfalls of running away? Why might the person or people in this ad have decided that it was worth the risk? Feel free to be creative in your response, but make sure that your ideas for the possible history behind this ad is plausible and based on historical evidence about American slavery.
- Using secondary sources to provide support for your arguments, write about the possible scenarios that you can imagine as outcomes for this story. Did the slave(s) escape to freedom or wind up recaptured? What would happen in each scenario? Which outcome do you think was most likely?
You could invite students to write this paper as a standard analytical essay, or you could allow more creative options such as writing a short story based on the ad with footnotes or parenthetical citations showing the primary and secondary sources that could support the plausibility of key details. Alternatively, a group could produce a play about the lives depicted in the ad and submit a written script with similar citations.
Option C: Different perspectives
Read through a large number of advertisements related to runaway slaves (at least 15). Choose one advertisement that you think includes useful information about not only the runaway slave(s) but also interesting information about the perspectives of the person placing the ad. (It should not be from January 7, 1837.) Write a three- to five-page essay that:
- Describes what we know about the slave(s) in the ad and the slave holder who placed it. Please use details from the ad itself to show the reader what we can learn from the advertisement.
- Write about how this ad might appear from the perspective of any slaves who appear in it. Try to imagine what they might have thought about the circumstances described by the ad, what they might have thought of the person placing the ad, and what concerns they might have about the details provided. In other words, what would their side of the story be?
- Write about how this ad might appear from the perspective of the person who submitted the ad. What were his motivations and concerns? What can you tell about how he thought about the slave(s) listed in this ad based on the way he wrote about them?
The key points of your essay should be well-supported by evidence from the advertisement and from secondary sources such as your textbook.
As with Option 2, you could choose to invite students to write a typical analytical essay or, instead, could ask students to write more creatively, writing an imagined diary entry or letter from the perspectives of different individuals (the slaves listed, the slave holder, an abolitionist who might be reading this newspaper).
Assessment will be based on the student’s body of work from throughout the lesson, taking into account the student’s participation in class free-writing and discussions, and contributions to group-based activities. Teachers can determine how much to weight each part of the lesson and what specific rubric to use based on their own priorities and classroom practices. The following questions will help you think about how to assess students’ work for various parts of the lesson.
- Free-writing shouldn’t be graded on grammar, spelling, organization, or content — rather, students should be evaluated on whether they seem to have engaged with the task at hand and tried to use the time to productively generate and record their ideas in written form.
Discussions and classroom activities
- Did students contribute frequently and thoughtfully to class discussion?
- When group work was a part of the lesson, did students cooperate and do their fair share of the work?
- If you wish, you can incorporate a peer-review or self-assessment to allow students to comment on the contributions of group members or on their own contributions to group work and class discussion.
Primary source analysis (newspaper advertisements)
- Did students identify significant information about this source and its origins?
- Did students place this source in an accurate historical context?
- Did students summarize the content of this source thoughtfully?
- Did students draw reasonable conclusions when analyzing this source?
- Did students evaluate the source thoughtfully?
- Did students write down their observations carefully and in detail for later analysis?
Final written assignment
- Does the final assignment contain accurate historical information and are the student’s interpretations or speculations plausible for the specific historical context?
- Does the student’s written assignment demonstrate thoughtful historical analysis with all key points well-supported by historical evidence?
- Does the student demonstrate a clear understanding of the differences in historical perspective between various individuals who might have a personal stake in the escape of slaves or in the buying and selling of slaves?
- Is the student’s essay well-organized and clearly written? Is it free of the kinds of errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting that might distract or confuse a reader?
For additional details on slavery, students may wish to consult the following sources:
- WPA narratives from North Carolina from the Library of Congress’ Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.
- Guion Griffis Johnson’s Family Life of Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History from Documenting the American South
- Chapters 16-18 address slavery in North Carolina — including the role of slavery in the North Carolina economy, laws pertaining to enslaved people, and the social lives of slaves.
- Note: Teachers may be interested in reading “Making Southern History: Guion Griffis Johnson’s Antebellum North Carolina” for background information on Johnson’s work and North Carolina’s social history.
You may choose to devote more time to these activities by including extension activities, or by interspersing the activities in this lesson plan with other kinds of instruction designed to enhance students’ understanding of American slavery. You may also find it possible to condense this lesson into a smaller period of time if time constraints require that modification. It is possible to conclude this plan after day one — doing so will allow all students to experience working with historical newspaper advertisements, but will not allow for individual research and projects.
This plan is not intended to be a stand-alone plan covering all aspects of American slavery, but teachers can use this plan as the centerpiece for a series of teaching activities including lectures, readings, discussions, etc. that will present a full view of this important topic. Teachers could choose to teach the history of American slavery during this lesson plan by spreading out the activities and interspersing them with lectures, readings, and other instructional strategies designed to teach that history, or they could choose to teach the details of American slavery prior to this lesson plan and use this plan as a culminating activity to allow students to extend their knowledge through primary source research.
North Carolina curriculum alignment
Social Studies (2003)
Grade 11–12 — United States History
- Goal 3: Crisis, Civil War, and Reconstruction (1848-1877) - The learner will analyze the issues that led to the Civil War, the effects of the war, and the impact of Reconstruction on the nation.
- Objective 3.01: Trace the economic, social, and political events from the Mexican War to the outbreak of the Civil War.
- Goal 3: The learner will identify key events and evaluate the impact of reform and expansion in North Carolina during the first half of the 19th century.
- Objective 3.04: Describe the development of the institution of slavery in the State and nation, and assess its impact on the economic, social, and political conditions.
- Common Core State Standards
- English Language Arts (2010)
- Grades 11-12
- 11-12.LH.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
- 11-12.LH.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
- Grades 6-8
- 6-8.LH.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
- 6-8.LH.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
- Grades 9-10
- 9-10.LH.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
- 9-10.LH.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
- Grades 11-12
- English Language Arts (2010)
- North Carolina Essential Standards
- Social Studies (2010)
- 8.H.1 Apply historical thinking to understand the creation and development of North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.1.1 Construct charts, graphs, and historical narratives to explain particular events or issues. 8.H.1.2 Summarize the literal meaning of...
- 8.H.2 Understand the ways in which conflict, compromise and negotiation have shaped North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.2.1 Explain the impact of economic, political, social, and military conflicts (e.g. war, slavery, states’ rights and citizenship...
United States History I
- USH.H.1 Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time. USH.H.1.1 Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the...
- USH.H.4 Analyze how conflict and compromise have shaped politics, economics and culture in the United States. USH.H.4.1 Analyze the political issues and conflicts that impacted the United States through Reconstruction and the compromises that resulted (e.g.,...
- USH.H.5 Understand how tensions between freedom, equality and power have shaped the political, economic and social development of the United States. USH.H.5.1 Summarize how the philosophical, ideological and/or religious views on freedom and equality contributed...
- Social Studies (2010)