Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly:
The Material and Emotional Realities of Childhood in Slavery

A Language Arts Lesson Plan for Grades 6-8

Printable Documents

Additional Resources


Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly were both born into slavery and thus forced to confront the harsh circumstances of the institution as young children. Despite enslavement, moments of happiness and of fleeting material comfort punctuated the early lives of both Jacobs and Keckly. Nonetheless, these women were scarred by the brutal realities of an institution that frequently ripped apart families, separating parents from each other, and most poignantly, children from their parents. In this lesson, students will examine and identify the components of love, sadness, deprivation, and small comforts that defined the lives of enslaved children. They will read excerpts from the narratives of Jacobs and Keckly and will learn about their childhoods. Students will explore the process of making inferences and will consider what they can learn about childhood in slavery in general through examining the narratives of two women who had been enslaved as children. Note: Elizabeth Keckly's last name is often spelled "Keckley." We are honoring Keckly's own spelling of her last name, which lacked the extra "e." Although we encourage the use of "Keckly," some of the materials that you will reference for this lesson plan will present the name with the extra "e."

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

Guiding Questions

What was it like to be a female slave child in the nineteenth-century Upper South? What experiences defined Jacobs's and Keckly's memories of their enslaved childhoods? Why do we have to be cautious in making inferences based solely on one or two primary sources?

Suggested Time

2 class periods

Preparing to Teach the Lesson

  1. Review Teacher Tools 1 and 2, which offer brief overviews of the lives of Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly.
  2. View the short videos 9 Feet Long and 7 Wide (on Harriet Jacobs) and My Dear Mother (on Elizabeth Keckly). Be prepared to show these two videos to your class.
  3. Review Teacher Tool 3 for a generalized overview of childhood slavery in the American South. For more information on this topic, you can visit the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and view an entry on Slavery in the United States or review the article "Family Life in the Slave Quarters: Survival Strategies" by Marie Jenkins Schwartz in the Organization of American Historians Magazine.
  4. Review "I was Born a Slave:" Two African American Women Relate their Childhood Years and the Growing Awareness of Being Enslaved from the National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox. This lesson plan requires your students to read this document, so decide if you should print it for reproduction or if they will read it in online.
  5. Review Student Handout 1, which contains identification questions about Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly based on the reading of "I Was Born a Slave."
  6. Review Teacher Tool 4, which is the same as Student Handout 1, but with the correct responses in bold for your use.
  7. Review Student Handout 2, which contains a list of questions that require students to explore the types of inferences they can make from reading about the lives of two women who were enslaved as children.
  8. Review Teacher Tool 5, which is the same as Student Handout 2 with notes added to help you lead a discussion on inferences.

Teaching the Lesson (Suggested Steps)

  1. To begin this lesson plan, show the brief videos on Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly.
  2. Either distribute "I was Born a Slave:" Two African American Women Relate their Childhood Years and the Growing Awareness of Being Enslaved or have students read it online.
  3. Distribute Student Handout 1 and ask them to circle the appropriate response to the facts listed. Teacher Tool 4 contains the correct responses to the activity in Student Handout 1.
  4. As a class, discuss correct responses to the fact list in Student Handout 1.
  5. Distribute Student Handout 2 and ask students to respond to each of the statements about childhood slavery. Once students have completed Student Handout 2, tell them you will come back to it and discuss their responses later.
  6. Using the information in Teacher Tool 3, provide students with an overview of childhood slavery in general.
  7. Using Teacher Tool 5, have a class discussion about what helped them form their inferences and whether or not they were correct. Lead a discussion about generalizations and inferences. You might ask them such questions about inferences as "if you see a student with red hair walking out of a classroom, can you infer that all of the students in that class have red hair?" You might also ask them, "What if you were in a hotel lobby filled with bald men? Would it be reasonable to infer that there was a meeting geared to bald men being held at the hotel?" Explain to students that with such a large number of bald men all together at the same place and time, it would be reasonable to infer that such an event was being held. Lead a discussion about how students can put together facts from multiple sources to increase their chances of making accurate inferences. Explain that they should be careful in making generalization based on only one or two sources. They should not make the assumption that the experiences of Keckly and Jacobs were shared by all enslaved children. Although the experiences of these two women are in many ways representative of the experiences of privileged female house slaves, more sources of information would be required in order to make an educated inference.
  8. Based on the information in Teacher Tools 1 and 2, provide students with an overview of the lives of Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly. Describe their progression from slavery to freedom and their contribution to American society and history (both in their time and in the present). Be sure to note Harriet Jacobs's incredible escape from slavery (including hiding for seven years in a confined space), the narratives written by both former slaves, and Keckly's career as a dressmaker to affluent women, including Mary Todd Lincoln. Engage students in a discussion about how these two women, who were enslaved as children, went on to be free as adults and to accomplish so much.

Extending the Lesson

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