Virtual Freedom: Sally Thomas's Experience of Slavery

A Social Studies Lesson Plan for Grades 3-5

Printable Documents


In this lesson, students will learn about Sally Thomas, a nineteenth-century black laundress who lived in Nashville, Tennessee. After learning about Thomas's successful business, they will be surprised to find out that despite the fact that she was earning money she was actually enslaved. As a slave with "virtual freedom," her life story offers a counterpoint to the more widely known experiences of those in bondage on plantations and in smaller agricultural households. Students will compare and contrast their preconceived ideas about slavery with Sally Thomas's lived experience as a "virtual slave." This lesson plan uses recent historical scholarship to broaden students' understanding of the peculiar institution's complicated history and to expose the diversity within slavery.

Learning Objectives

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

Guiding Questions

How might the day-to-day lives of enslaved people differ based on their environments, the whims of their owners, and their own self-motivation? What might we learn from the story of a "virtual slave" like Sally Thomas?

Suggested Time

1-2 class periods

Preparing to Teach the Lesson

  1. If you are already familiar with the condition known as "virtual freedom" and with the history of Sally Thomas, skip to step 2. If you are unfamiliar with either, you can read Teacher Tool 1, which is a brief biography of Sally Thomas and Teacher Tool 2, which is a brief overview of virtual freedom (both included with this lesson plan) or In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger.
  2. Review and print Student Handout 1. Student Handout 1 is derived from information provided within In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. It contains information about the life of Sally Thomas and aims to connect some of the details of her life with those of the students and to engage them in the knowledge of her craft. Student Handout 1 does not reveal that Sally Thomas was enslaved.
  3. Review and print Teacher Tool 3. Part A of Teacher Tool 3 includes several general questions about the day-to-day lives of slaves. It is intended to allow students to brainstorm and talk about what they already know about the lives of those in bondage. Part B of Teacher Tool 3 provides a list of questions that students should discuss after learning that Sally Thomas is enslaved. The questions are about Sally Thomas's life and are intended to challenge students to think more about the diversity within slavery by examining the lived experience of Sally Thomas.
  4. Review and print Teacher Tool 4. Teacher Tool 4 contains an excerpt from In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. This excerpt reveals many details about Sally Thomas's life, including the fact that she was a slave. Familiarize yourself with this brief document.
  5. View the short video, So, You Want to Do Laundry Work?, which features an actor portraying Sally Thomas. Be prepared to show this video to your students.

Teaching the Lesson (Suggested Steps)

  1. Provide students with an overview of Sally Thomas, using the information provided in Teacher Tool 1 included with this lesson plan or from In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. Be sure not to reveal that Thomas was enslaved in your overview.
  2. Distribute Student Handout 1 and go over it with the class, working through the questions and information together. Working through Student Handout 1 will better-acquaint students with Sally Thomas. Again, be sure not to reveal that Thomas was enslaved.
  3. Discuss the questions in Part A of Teacher Tool 3 with your students, asking them to answer using their prior knowledge of the institution of slavery. Save Part B for later.
  4. Using the information in Teacher Tool 2 and Teacher Tool 4, tell your students more about Sally Thomas. Reveal to them that despite her apparent freedom, she was in fact a "virtual slave." Discuss what it meant to be a "virtual slave" or to be "quasi-free."
  5. Lead a discussion using the questions in Part B of Teacher Tool 3. Discuss the variety within the institution of slavery. In this discussion, it is very important that students understand that unlike Sally Thomas, most slaves were told what work to do by their masters or overseers and had very little or no choice in the matter. Moreover, physical violence, like whipping and other inhumane measures, was regularly used to get maximum productivity from enslaved people.
  6. Show the short video, So, You Want to Do Laundry Work? to engage your students and enhance their understanding of the processes involved in doing laundry in the nineteenth century.

Teachers may use and reproduce the material on this website for instructional purposes. View conditions of use for more information.