Reconstruction and African American Lives

My students are currently examining the experiences of African Americans during Reconstruction. So today I began class with a five-minute warm-up activity using these maps of the Barrow Plantation in Georgia in 1861 and 1880.

Barrow Plantation

The goal of this activity is to anticipate how Reconstruction changed the lives of African Americans.  In the main activity, students will examine in depth several related primary sources including Freedman’s Bureau reports, Congressional testimony by a former slave, and post-Civil War labor contracts.

(I used a paper copy of the map – but after class (of course!) found this awesome interactive version online from the McGraw-Hill site.  I will definitely switch to this version for next year.)

While debriefing the changes on the map between 1860 and 1880, I asked my students if they could discern which people on the land were formerly slaves from the Barrow plantation. We got into an interesting discussion about the naming of slaves and last names.  I mentioned the popularity of surnames like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln among newly-freed African American men and women.  But when I had mentioned the popularity of names like Freeman and Freedman, to indicate this newly-won status, I wondered out loud if this was the origin of actor Morgan Freeman’s last name.

Curious that night I did some digging.  I had seen excerpts from Henry Louis Gates’ TV mini-series African American Lives, but I hadn’t remembered if Freeman was interviewed.  A quick Google later and there he was.

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African American Lives 2 at minute 2:57-8:00

Professor Gates traced Freeman’s family back to his great-great-grandmother, a slave name Ceeley who had borne several of the children of a white worker on the plantation. Gates tried to determine the nature of their relationship by examining property records, census data, and grave markers.  I found this five-minute clip really useful to show the complicated nature of race relations in the American South and equally useful in illustrating the process of historical research.

My students continued to work energized by the “personal connection” they had now made with nearly 150-year-old historical documents.  (I even heard a “that’s pretty cool” from a struggling student.) The primary sources they analyzed came to life as they thought of Morgan Freeman’s great-great-grandmother, Ceeley.

This lesson within a lesson was a great success.  And, in my quest to find the answer to my own historical question, I modeled the importance of intellectual curiosity.  (Call it a teachable moment.)

Overall, I recognize that finding a personal connection is what made history first come alive for me.  I continue to use primary sources to bring that same excitement and energy to my classroom.

Other Related Links:

The blackest name in America (Daily Mail UK – Feb 2011)

Surnames Used by African Americans (The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation)

Interesting for an English or American Studies teacher:  “NPR on ‘Freeman’: A Liberated Slave in Search of a Family”

Finding African Americans on the 1870 Census