Virtual Freedom: Sally Thomas's Experience of Slavery

A Social Studies Lesson Plan for Grades 6-8

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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 Teacher Tool 3. Teacher Tool 3 is an edited version of a section within In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. The text has been slightly modified to exclude any direct reference to Sally Thomasís status as an enslaved woman.
  3. Review and print Student Handout 1 or create your own modified version. Student Handout 1 includes several questions about the day-to-day lives of those in bondage. It is intended to allow students to brainstorm aloud or write down what they already know about the lives of slaves, and, ultimately, to compare and contrast their prior knowledge of the institution of slavery with what they will learn about the "virtual freedom" of Sally Thomas and other enslaved people like her.
  4. Review and print Teacher Tool 4. Teacher Tool 4 is the unedited version of the same excerpt from In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South that appears in Teacher Tool 3. This full version of the excerpt will make it plain to students that despite that fact that Sally Thomas did exercise a great deal of control over her own life on a day-to-day basis, she was in fact a slave.
  5. Review and print Student Handout 2. Student Handout 2 is a list of questions that students should answer and discuss after learning that Sally Thomas is enslaved.
  6. 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 and Teacher Tool 2 or from In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. Be sure not to reveal that Thomas was a slave in your overview.
  2. Using Teacher Tool 3, read them the excerpt provided from In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. Explain that you are reading a brief section from a book that professional historians wrote about Sally Thomas's remarkable life. Do not give away her status as a slave yet.
  3. Distribute Student Handout 1 or your own modified version. Ask students to take 10 minutes to work individually to write down some of the things that come to their minds when they think about the day-to-day lives of enslaved people in the United States. When the time has ended, ask the students to share some of their knowledge about the day-to-day lives of enslaved people.
  4. Tell the students that Sally Thomas was actually a "virtual slave" and that the excerpt that you read aloud was a modified version of Sally Thomas's story. Then tell them that you will read the full version and read the excerpt in Teacher Tool 3 aloud. Discuss what it meant to be a "virtual slave" or to be "quasi-free."
  5. Ask the students to write down their answers to the questions in Student Handout 2 or read the questions aloud and discuss them with the class. Discuss the variety within the institution of slavery. Does a typical day in Sally Thomas's life reflect both her freedom and the limits to her freedom? Ask them if they were surprised that Sally Thomas was able to make many important decisions for herself even within the confines 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.

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