Traveling Back: Building a Living Timeline of Pre-Civil War Slavery

Brandon T. Kowalski
Traveling Back: Building a Living Timeline of Pre-Civil War Slavery
Traveling Back: Building a Living Timeline of Pre-Civil War Slavery
presented by Cora Davis

Suitable for History & Language Arts Classes
Adaptable for Grades 3-12


Students will read and analyze ads written from 1850 to 1860 and make a timeline of the ads. They will consider important historical events, people and literature from those years and build a timeline in their classroom of that decade to create a fuller, more well-rounded picture of slavery and how these individuals’ lives played into the big picture.

Objectives / Student Tasks

  • Create a timeline featuring individual runaway ads and major historical events
  • Analyze how and why systems, individuals, events or ideas develop and interact throughout a series of texts
  • Recognize the diverse experiences of enslaved people
  • Create a narrative based on real or imagined events

Pre-lesson (optional)

You might consider using the following materials to prep students who don’t have much prior knowledge about slavery or runaway ads. This could prepare students to understand more about why enslaved people sometimes escaped.

  • In this Teaching Tolerance video, Historian Daina Ramey Berry describes the sale of an infant named Rachel to explore how enslaved people were commodified. The video is humanizing and can set students up for the lesson.
  • Link to questions and answers to go with the video.

Warm-up: Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

  1. Show pictures of celebrities students might be familiar with. I used Cardi B and Lebron James. Then ask students to describe this person in these ways:
  • Based ONLY on what they look like in the picture.
  • Based on what you know about them. (Cardi B is a mother, feminist and lover of history, and she’s passionate about politics and people getting the rights that they deserve.)
  1. Tell students that oftentimes we make assumptions about the lives of enslaved people without knowing what individual lives were like. Through the Freedom on the Move ads, they will start to learn more about the full stories of individuals who escaped slavery.

Part 1: Explore the Ads

  1. Explain to students that they are going to build a timeline ranging from 1850 to 1860 using runaway ads from the Freedom on the Move database.
  2. Before distributing the ads, show this video from PBS about the Fugitive Slave Act that was passed in 1850, at the beginning of the timeline.
  3. Assign students a year (1850-1860), and allow them to search the Freedom on the Move database for an ad from that year that interests them OR select ads for your students and create a Google Doc that lists your students’ names along with a link to their ad. Click here for an example.
  4. Explain to students that they will analyze and read and answer questions about the ad. Students will answer the questions about their ads on a Post-it or piece of paper and present their findings to their classmates.
  • In what year was your ad written?
  • What is the name of the enslaved person (people) in your ad?
  • What words are used to describe the person in your ad?
  • How much does the enslaver offer for the return of the person in your ad? (Encourage students to look up how much the amount would be in today’s currency.)
  1. Other questions to consider, but leave off Post-it:
  • What questions do you have after reading the ad?
  • What story can be told based on the information within the ad?

Part 2: Construct the Timeline

In-person instruction

  1. Set aside a space in the room for a large sheet of butcher paper. Prep the sheet with the dates 1850-1860 and include the following historical events on the timeline:
  • Fugitive Slave Act (1850)
  • Henry Box Brown’s Escape (1849)
  • “Ain’t I a Woman” Speech by Sojourner Truth (1851)
  • Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)
  • Dred Scott v. Sanford Case (1857)
  1. Have students line up in order according to the date their ad was posted and create a living timeline. Once all ads are in order, students can hang their ad onto the large sheet of paper. Instruct students to research at least two of the historic events listed near their ad on the timeline. Ask the students to consider how the historical event connects to the person they read about in their ad.

Online instruction

  1. Share a Google Slide with students that includes a timeline from 1850 to 1860. Include the historical events listed above. Students can plug in information about their ad that corresponds with the year. Click here for an example of the virtual timeline in which students can add the answers to the questions provided about their ads. Instruct students to research at least two of the historic events listed on the timeline. Ask the students to consider how the historical event connects to the person they read about in their ad.

Part 3: Discuss as a Group

Allow students to do a gallery walk and read all the posts in the timeline. Ask them to consider the following questions, then open up the room for discussion.

  • What are you noticing/learning about the system of slavery that you didn’t know before?
  • Does the value of enslaved people change over the years?
  • How do the ads help us understand more about the individual lives of enslaved people?

Extension Activities

Compose a Journal Entry

Students will write a diary or journal entry, from the perspective of the enslaved person in their ad, about the day they heard that an ad was posted about them. Remind the students to write from a first-person point of view. Also, encourage students to consider the details provided about the enslaved person. If they had any wounds or scars, that can be included within the narrative. Students may use the following questions to guide them in their writing.

  1. What is your initial feeling upon hearing about an ad from the enslaver?
  2. Does it cause you to hesitate or motivate you to keep pressing toward freedom?
  3. Describe why it causes you to make the choice you make.

Research Historical Events

In small groups, have students research and discuss the different historical events on the timeline. Students can conduct additional research on the topic and create a short presentation for the class. The presentations should highlight the impact the event had on the enslaved people they learned about in their ads.

This lesson aligns to key concepts 4, 5, 6 and 10 of Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Hard History Framework.