Who Is a Historian? Answering Tough Questions Using Primary Sources

Brandon T. Kowalski
Who Is a Historian? Answering Tough Questions Using Primary Sources
Who Is a Historian? Answering Tough Questions Using Primary Sources
presented by Will Duke

Suitable for History Classes
Adaptable for Grades 3-12

Student Objectives

  1. Better understand the work of a historian
  2. Properly utilize a primary source to answer a research question
  3. Use runaway ads to learn more about the lives and culture surrounding both enslaved people and enslavers



  1. Begin the lesson by asking students to write down five words that come to their mind when they think of the word “historian.” Have students share their answers and hold on to them until the end of the lesson.
  2. Show the video What is the difference between history and memory? In this video, Christy Clark-Pujara says, “When we’re doing history (and everybody can do history), we shouldn’t imagine what it was, or what we think it was, or what we wanted it to be, but evaluate what it was. In order to do that, we look at primary documents, and we ask all kinds of questions of those documents from different perspectives.” Ask students to discuss their takeaways from the video.
  3. Tell students that today in class, they are going to play the role of historians by using primary documents. Today we will be examining the value of enslaved people by studying runaway ads.


  1. Show students this ad from the Freedom on the Move database. Ask students:
  • What does the ad say about Rachel’s physical appearance? What does this tell us about her story?
  • What was the reward for her return? How much would that be in today’s terms?
  • What does the reward amount tell you about the monetary value assigned to enslaved people?
  1. Explain to the class the definition of a “commodity.” With the definition of this term in mind, challenge the class to compare modern day commodities to the way in which enslaved people were viewed by slave-holding culture. Ask the class what gives a commodity value, and inform the class that they will explore the values placed on enslaved people by enslavers.
  2. Next, pose the question, “What factors contributed to the value of an enslaved person during the mid-19th century?” Explain to the class that they will only be allowed to use Freedom on the Move’s searchable database as a resource to answer this question. Explain that they will search within the database to find articles about enslaved people who escaped slavery, and further filter these articles based on the reward for their capture.
  3. In groups or individually, students will read and transcribe three ads and investigate what traits (physical or otherwise) may have contributed to the reward for their capture. Students must find values that potentially added to the enslaved person’s reward, and values that would have subtracted from it. Record their findings on this handout. Again, encourage students to look for traits other than simply physical ones; these could include skills and knowledge, family associations, etc. Students should also note what other factors may have contributed to the reward or value of the runaway: location, date, and other historical events that occurred around the time of the enslaved person’s escape.
  4. Students will then present their ideas, along with the evidence that supports their claim.
  5. Finally, students will debrief together in groups by following a list of guided questions for discussion:
  • Seeing that enslaved people were indeed viewed as commodities rather than human beings, how do you think this affected their emotional state?
  • How do you think the descriptions of the enslaved people in the ads affected the motivation of people finding and returning the enslaved person to the enslaver?
  • Does the value of enslaved people change over time? For example, is there an effect on or change in the value of slaves as the years approach the beginning of the Civil War?

Return to Warm Up

  1. Look back at your list from the beginning of the lesson about what a historian does. Is there anything you would add to the list? Has your definition changed? If so, how?

Extension Activity

Students will write an essay using evidence from the Freedom on the Move ads to answer the question: What factors contributed to the value of an enslaved person during the mid-19th century? Using correct MLA formatting, students will utilize Freedom on the Move as the primary source; however, students are allowed to use two or three credible outside sources to help make their claim.

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