Project Origins

The Crafting Freedom Materials Project

The Crafting Freedom website, known officially as the "Crafting Freedom Teaching and Learning Materials Project" had its origins in a teacher workshop entitled: "Crafting Freedom: Thomas Day & Elizabeth Keckly, African American Artisans and Entrepreneurs in the Making of America." This was a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Landmarks of American History Workshop offered during the summers of 2004-2006 by the Thomas Day Education Project in partnership with the North Carolina Museum of History. A related Crafting Freedom teacher institute supported by the NEH was offered in 2007.

Four hundred and fifty K-12 teachers from around the country participated in the "Crating Freedom" professional development experience. They came to North Carolina to study recent scholarship about enslaved and free black participation in the 19th-century "market revolution, national expansion, and the struggle for racial equality. Most of the material developed for the Crafting Freedom website originated with instructional ideas and strategies that resulted from collaborations between teachers, scholars, and master teachers during the summer workshops.

Thomas Day and Elizabeth Keckly, two nineteenth-century black "freedom crafters" were the major focal points. Day (1801-ca. 1861) was a free black furniture maker who built the largest furniture-making business in North Carolina by 1850. Elizabeth Keckly (1818-1907) was an enslaved seamstress who purchased her freedom with money earned sewing beautiful dresses for elite women. She became a famous fashion designer of the Civil War era and her most famous client was Mary Todd Lincoln. Day and Keckly literally "crafted freedom" by creating greater opportunities for themselves and their loved ones, as well as for others of their race. In Keckly's case, she was able to purchase her own and her only child's freedom through the application of her craft skills.

Teachers in the workshops applauded the approach of learning about slavery and freedom through the lives and work of Thomas Day and Elizabeth Keckly. However, they were hungry to learn about more individuals. Teachers at the elementary and middle grade levels were especially eager for materials because they told us that most of the instructional material on the web related to black history targeted high school and college students, but not the 3rd-8th grades. We began incorporating additional African American artisans, artists, entrepreneurs, and abolitionists into the workshop presentations, and thus expanded the "crafting freedom" theme. Seven "freedom crafters" in addition to Day and Keckly were woven into the workshops and eventually became the featured focal points of the Crating Freedom website.

Eight of the nine individuals were either born free or obtained their freedom, which was not the experience of the vast majority of African Americans in the antebellum era. Some might ask: why study antebellum blacks who are exceptional by virtue of having been born free or having acquired their freedom? Although the freedom and success these individuals attained were atypical, the majority of their life experiences were representative of the experiences and aspirations of other 19th century blacks—enslaved and free. For example, untold thousands of free and enslaved black men and women worked as artisans. Elizabeth Keckly became a famous fashion designer, yet for the first three decades of her life she was an enslaved seamstress like thousands of black women who plied their skills in the needle arts during the colonial and antebellum periods. Because she became free and successful and therefore "exceptional" and able to tell her story, does not invalidate her early experience on the plantation as a case history for learning about the day-to-day life of a skilled female house slave. In fact, a lesson on the website uses Keckly's experiences as a teen-ager separated from her mother in an exploration of enslaved childhood. This website illustrates that enslaved individuals with a skill or talent had an advantage that could be used to leverage greater rights and privileges, and even freedom. However, the fact that these nine figures were skilled and talented does not make them rare. The surviving material cultural evidence throughout the South and other documentary evidence like ads for slave craftspeople in colonial and antebellum newspapers indicate there were many enslaved people with great talent and skill. Most of them, however, never attained their freedom and never had their work attributed to them as artists or artisans; they were simply too valuable for their masters to part with. George Moses Horton exemplifies a slave who was so valuable that his owner refused to grant him his freedom, even though he was allowed to live as a virtually free person.

In sum, the Crafting Freedom Teaching and Learning Materials Development project was incubated over four years of a professional development experience that brought teachers together with research-based knowledge, with historical sites and material culture, and with excellent scholars and teacher mentors. The result of this confluence of experience and expertise was the generation of scores of ideas for instructional activities and lesson plans. Thanks to a generous materials development grant from NEH, over the past three years the "raw material" generated by the workshops has been refined and nurtured into maturity through extensive classroom testing and revision based on scholar, student, and teacher feedback.

So what are you waiting for? Reach beyond the black history and literature you already teach.