The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery in America

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The Basics


US History


8th - 12th grade


Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (Florida state standards)


  • SS.8.A.2.2- Compare the characteristics of the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies
  • SS.8.A.2.7- Describe the contributions of key groups (Africans, Native Americans, women, and children) to the society and culture of colonial America
  • SS.8.A.3.15- Examine this time period (1763-1815) from the perspective of historically under-represented groups (children, indentured servants, Native Americans, slaves, women, working class).
  • SS.8.E.2.3- Assess the role of Africans and other minority groups in the economic development of the U.S.
  • SS.8.G.1.1- Use maps to explain physical and cultural attributes of major regions throughout American history.
  • SS.8.G.4.1- Interpret population growth and other demographic data for any given place in the U.S. throughout its history.
  • SS.8.G.4.2- Use geographic terms and tools to analyze the effects throughout American history of migration to and within the U.S., both on the place of origin and destination.
  • SS.8.G.5.2- Describe the impact of human modifications on the physical environment and ecosystems of the U.S. throughout history.
  • SS.8.G.6.2- Illustrate places and events in U.S. history through the use of narratives and graphic representations.
  • LA. Use new vocabulary that is introduced and taught directly
  • LA. Listen to, read, and discuss familiar conceptually challenging text
  • LA. Use context clues to determine meanings of unfamiliar words

Author: Sheldon Lamar Wilson (2013)


The Lesson

This is the first half of a two unit section on slavery in America. This first unit is comprised of six 90 minute block classes. The unit will begin with captured Africans being taken from their homeland and their journey along the Triangular Trade Route. This unit will end with Negro Spirituals and Negro songs. This unit is written to analyze slavery from the perspectives of the enslaved. The second unit (not included here) is on slavery from the perspective is the enslavers, traders, slave masters, and America as a whole in the 17th through 19th centuries.



Students will analyze the first two hundred yours of the history of slavery in a 2 part, four week unit. This unit plan is the first part of the unit. The primary sources that will be used are primary and secondary source songs that will be used to help students comprehend the complexities of slavery in America from the vantage point of enslaved people. Songs that will be used covers a wide range of time beginning with “The Desponding Negro” in 1792 through the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performance of “Wade in the Water” in 2011.


Students will be able to (Depth of Knowledge):

  • Make observations and identify pictures that relate to slavery.
  • Define, draw, and identify vocabulary terms dealing with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade
  • Who-what-when-where-why of slave traders in the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Illustrate the closeness of passengers on the slave ship with student volunteers.
  • List items that may be traded along the Triangle Trade Route between Europe, America, Caribbean Islands, South America, and Africa.
  • Draw a Triangular Trade Route between three countries/regions.
  • Analyze primary source documents (songs and music scores).
  • Analyze secondary source documents (songs and video).
  • Apply concepts of varies songs and connect their meaning to issues of the given time period.
  • Draw the scene illustrated in a song.
  • Compare an original recording of a song to a remake of the song in a different time period.
  • Create a Negro Spiritual using the life of an enslaved person during the 18th or 19th century.
  • Create a “spiritual” of teenagers/students’ lives today.
  • read sections from the textbook and illustrate their knowledge through section reviews, quizzes, and tests.
  • summarize the read text in individual, peer, and class review.
  • define vocabulary term.
  • predict definitions of unfamiliar vocabulary terms
  • illustrate the meaning of vocabulary terms through drawings and picture analysis.





“No More Auction Block for Me” (1867)

“The Desponding Negro” (1792)

“Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” by Louis Armstrong

Other versions: O.V. Wright, Tom Jones, Clutch, Sara Tidwell (Anika Rose), Lou Rawls, etc.

  • Description: The song dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. An early performance of the song dates back to the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. According to Wikipedia,” the song is clearly an expression of pain and despair as it conveys the hopelessness of a child who has been torn from his or her parents. Under one interpretation, the repetitive singing of the word ‘sometimes’ offers a measure of hope, as it suggests that at least ‘sometimes’ I do not feel like a motherless child.” The “motherless child” could be a slave separated from and yearning for his African homeland, a slave suffering “a long ways from home”—home being heaven—or most likely both. (
  • Source: YouTube
  • ContributorLouis Armstrong
  • Date Published:
  • Length: 3:32
  • Link:
  • Lyrics Link:

“Wade in the Water” (1901) by Mary Mary and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Other versions: Fisk Jubilee Singers, Patty Griffin, Eva Cassidy, etc.

      • Description: The song relates to both the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible. The verses are about the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt as it is illustrated in the book of Exodus. The chorus refers to healing as can be seen in the Book of John “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling water stepped in was made whole.” Many believe that this song, and other Negro Spirituals contained explicit instructions for runaway slaves to escape to freedom. This song in particular is believed to be instructions for fugitives to take to water to avoid the smell of bloodhounds. (  
      • Source: YouTube
      • Contributor: Mary Mary, Alvin Ailey Dance CompanySitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
      • Date Published: Mary Mary-2000; Alvin Ailey 2011 (original 1/31/1960)
      • Length: Mary Mary-4:30; Alvin Ailey-6:44
      • Link: Mary Mary Video:

        Alvin Ailey (dance company): 


“Old Black Mammy’s Lullaby”

      • Notes: Mrs. Isabel Barnwell was 85 years old when this recording was made on Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) Plantation in Nassau County, Florida.  Mrs. Barnwell explains the meaning of terms such as “We Hab a Jest Gawd” and sings a song she learned from her “mammy” when she was very young
      • Source: Library of Congress
      • Contributor
      • Isabel Barnwell (performer),Robert Cook, Stetson Kennedy
      • Date Published: 8/14/1939
      • Length: 2:09
      • Link:    

“Ol' Man Satan”

      • Notes:
      • This song belongs to the Robert Winslow Gordon Cylinder Collection. (Source). April 12, 1926. (Date). According to Gordon, "This song was a favorite with Amelia, a slave brought to this country prior to 1800 from the island of Madagascar. She taught it to her grand-daughter, Violet, and she in turn taught it to her granddaughter, Mary, from whom I obtained it. Amelia was one of a number of slaves captured by the British in the war of 1812 and taken to Nassau in the Bahamas Islands, whence she never returned. She must, therefore, have sung the song prior to this time.” 
      • Source: Library of Congress - Robert Winslow Gordon Collection
      • Contributor: Mary C. Mann (singer), Robert Winslow Gordon
      • Date Published: 4/2/1926
      • Length: 2:15
      • Link:  

“Down around the Coast of La Barbaree”

      • Notes: This song is part of a WPA collection to record songs that were sang on slave ships. Sidney Cowell recorded the song in San Jose, California.

“Por ser mi divina luz” (For Being My Divine Light)

      • Notes: Esequiel Arellano was 40 years old when this recording was published by the WPA. He is a resident of New Mexico. This song is a hymn that is primarily sang as an “exhortation to the sinner to pay homage to Our Lord and to abide by HIS law, especially in view of great suffering HE endured during the Passion. 
      • Source: Library of Congress
      • Contributor:  Esequiel Arellano (performer)
      • Date Published: 7/30/1940
      • Length: 2:48
      • Link:
      • Lyrics Link:

“Soy Escalvo de Jesus (I am a Slave of Jesus)”:

      • Notes: Alfredo Romero was 50 years old and Narcisco Arellano was 46 years old when this song was recorded and they both were residents of Arroyo, New Mexico. This song and the previous song (Por ser mi divina luz), are important to use, especially in school’s with Hispanic students, because it gives a voice to Hispanic people in the region who were also enslaved during this time period.
      • Source: Library of Congress
      • Contributor:  Alfredo Romero (performer), Narcisco Arellano (performer)
      • Date Published: 8/11/1940
      • Length: 3:01
      • Link:
      • Lyrics Link

“Old Marse John”

      • Notes: This song is about an enslaved person who was promised freedom by the wife of the his owner but his freedom was not awarded. The chorus of the song adds “O mourner, you shall be free... When the good Lord sets you free." 
      • Source: Library of Congress
      • Contributor:  Jeff Horton, John Avery Lomax, Ruby T. Lomax
      • Date Published: 5/29/39
      • Length: 1:48
      • Link:
      • Lyrics Link:  




  • Why were enslaved Africans brought to the colonies?
  • How can songs be used to empower a group of people?
  • Why was the Triangle Trade important to American economics in the 18th and 19th centuries?
  • How did the conditions of the Middle Passage affect passengers of enslaved people along the Triangular Trade?


  • subsistence farming      
  • cash crop                        
  • diversity                         
  • triangular trade                                                       
  • slave code                      
  • wade
  • spiritual
  • deliverance
  • indigo
  • tobacco



LESSON 1: Build background through textbook

  • Do Now: Look at the images posted around the room. What is each item and what is its purpose? What do the items have in common? ~ 10 MIN
    • Teacher- Prior to students coming in the room, place images associated with slavery around the classroom (i.e. slave ship, tobacco, indigo, cotton, cotton gin, etc.)
  • Allow students to share their responses with the class (allow for volunteers) ~ 10 MIN
  • Read-a-loud chapter 4-1~ 15 MIN
  • Orally discuss Section Review questions from the textbook~ 5 MIN
  • select chapter 4/slavery unit vocabulary terms~ 15 MIN
    • Give each student a copy of the song lyrics for slavery unit
    • place students in groups of 4-5
    • have each group come up with a list of 10-15 vocabulary terms
    • Allow each group to write a term on the board until we have 20 terms
  • Have students to define vocabulary terms~ 20 MIN
  • Teacher- model how to complete a vocabulary graphic worksheet ~ 5 MIN
  • Allow students to complete one vocabulary graphics for one word ~ 10 MIN

HOME LEARNING: vocabulary graphics- choose any 4 vocabulary terms (4-1 and 4-2 ONLY)

Teacher: this is a vocabulary activity that takes 1 vocabulary term and students use it to completes 5 tasks (predicted definition- students’ own definition of the word before they look up the actual definition;  actual definition- glossary definition of the term; art association- draw an illustration that depicts the terms meaning; synonym or antonym- choose either a synonym or antonym for the term; sentence- write an appropriate sentence that conveys the meaning of the term).  


LESSON 2: Triangular Trade and the Middle Passage

  • Do Now: Watch Movie Clip of Amistad. ~ 15 MIN
    • Write down everything you see
    • Describe what is happening
      • Teacher: use clip of enslaved people on slave ship and slave auction scenes
  • Teacher present PowerPoint on the Transatlantic Slave Trade ~ 30 MIN
  • Illustrate the closeness of passengers on the slave ship with student volunteers (slide on PowerPoint) ~ 10 MIN
  • Have students list things that may be traded along the Triangle Trade Route between countries ~ 10 MIN
  • Have students draw a map of the Triangular Trade Route (listing items to be traded) ~ 25 MIN

HOME LEARNING: Finish trade map adding color and images to the map


LESSON 3: Song Activity 1: Enslaved people taken from Africa

  • Do Now: Watch movie clip of Amistad. Verbally discuss the scene (whole class) ~ 10 MIN
    • Note: show clip of enslaved people being “purged” off of the slave ship.
  • Listen to song “The Desponding Negro” (1792) without the lyrics [p. 2.28; CD 1:15] ~ 5 MIN
    • PSD Analysis form: ~ 15 MIN
      • Type of sound recording
      • Physical qualities
      • Tone or Mood
      • 3 important things
      • Intended audience
      • Why was it made
  • Pass out the song lyrics to each student
  • Listen to the song again ~ 5 MIN
  • Teacher- model graphic organizer activity using a different (but similar) song ~ 10 MIN
  • Separate students into small groups of 4-5 students per group
  • VAT Program: Graphic Organizers p. B.19 (Plotting the Story) ~ 20 MIN
  • Have each group present their findings ~ 10 MIN
    • students will peer assessed each groups presentation
  • Vocabulary Test  ~ 15 MIN
  • HOME LEARNING: For each block in the Graphic organizer (Plotting the Story) draw a depiction of the scene


LESSON 4: Song Activity 2: Life of enslaved person separated from family and/or from Africa

  • Do Now: Listen to the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” by Odetta without the lyrics [p. 3.18; CD-find online] ~ 5 MIN
    • PSD Analysis form: ~ 15 MIN
      • Type of sound recording
      • Physical qualities
      • Tone or Mood
      • 3 important things
      • Intended audience
      • Why was it made
  • Pass out the song lyrics for both songs to each student
    • “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in VAT
    • “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” by Louis Armstrong (or other artist)
  • Listen to both songs  ~ 10 MIN
  • Teacher- model graphic organizer activity using a different (but similar) song ~ 10 MIN
  • VAT Program: Graphic Organizers p. B.19 (Song Comparison) ~ 30 MIN
    • divide students in small groups of 2-3 students
    • using the graphic organizer compare and contrast the two songs
    • Have students “Pair share” with another group
  • Teacher- show YouTube video performance of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and discuss the video as a whole class discussion ~ 10 MIN
  • Teacher- model the PSD form for using the YouTube performance ~ 10 MIN

HOME LEARNING: using YouTube (or any other search engine), listen to another version of “Motherless Child” and complete a PSD Sound Recording form (students must use a version not used in class).


LESSON 5: Song Activity 3: Enslaved people being bought, sold, or traded

  • Do Now: Listen to the song “No More Auction Block for Me,” (1867) without the lyrics [p. 4.14; CD 2:11] ~ 5 MIN
    • PSD Analysis form: ~ 15 MIN
      • Type of sound recording
      • Physical qualities
      • Tone or Mood
      • 3 important things
      • Intended audience
      • Why was it made
  • Pass out the song lyrics to each student
  • Listen to the song again ~ 5 MIN
  • VAT Program: The Story Behind the Song p. B.13 ~ 55 MIN
    • Describe:
      • What strikes you most about this song?
      • Write down “images” that the music “paints.” What vivid metaphors, similes, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, are in the lyrics
      • Mark any changes in tempo, dynamics (loudness or softness), style or timbre (tone of voice) on the lyrics, changes in the pattern of the melody
        • Gathering Facts:
      • Who wrote the song? Where and how was the song composed?
      • When was the song popular? On what occasions was it sung?
      • What cultural, occupational, or gender group does the song represent? Is the composer a member of that group?
    • Analyze:
        • How Did They Do It:
      • Whose voice are the lyrics written in (1st, 2nd, or 3rd person; singular or plural; dialect)?
      • What is the purpose of the song?
    • Interpret:
        • What Does It Mean
      • What message or mood does the tune convey?
      • What opinion, if any, is the song-writer expressing through the song?
      • What emotions does the song express?
    • Speculate/Evaluate/Imagine:
        • How Important Is It?
      • When and where do you picture this song being performed?
      • How might the song’s message or meaning change with different people or in different environments?
      • In your own words, what is the message of the song?
      • Would you consider this song “propaganda”? Why or why not?
      • In a good song, music and lyrics are inseparable partners. Using that guideline, how good a song is this? Give examples to prove your point
  • Allow student volunteers to share some of their results ~ 10 MIN

HOME LEARNING: Choose any song presented in the unit thus far and listen to it (posted on class website). Choose any graphic organizer and complete it using the chosen song. Note- the song and graphic organizer chosen must be different from what was used in class. For instance, today we used the song “No More Auction Block for Me,” with graphic organizer The Story Behind the Song. These two cannot be paired up for the home learning assignment.


LESSON 6: Negro Spirituals

  • Do Now: Song analysis ~ 20 MIN
      • Give the students lyrics to the song “Wade in the Water”
      • listen to the song
      • discuss the argument that the song could have been used by fugitive slaves
      • students write a one paragraph descriptive narrative about a fugitive slave using the song to escape to the North.
  • Choose two or more Negro Spirituals, slave songs, or Negro songs (see for other spirituals)
    • “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child”
    • “Wade in the Water”
    • “Old Black Mammy’s Lullaby”
    • “Ol' Man Satan”
    • “Down around the Coast of La Barbaree”
    • “Por ser mi divina luz”
    • “Soy Escalvo de Jesus”
    • “Old Marse John”
    • Other options (“Sing Low Sweet Chariot”, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”)
  • Give each student a copy of the lyrics then listen to the spirituals ~ 10 MIN
  • Have a whole group discussion about the applied and hidden message of the spirituals ~ 15 MIN
  • Separate the class into small groups of 4-5 students per group
  • Have students write 2 spirituals ~ 45 MIN
    • before 1865
    • present day (student or teenager issues)


    • Finish the spirituals and present next class
    • Complete chart “French and Indian War” click here


LESSON 7: Student presentation of Spirituals

  • Do Now: What is a spiritual? ~ 7 MIN
  • Allow student volunteers to share their responses ~ 3 MIN
  • Have students orally present their spirituals to the class ~45 MIN
  • Watch video on slavery ~ 30 MIN

HOME LEARNING: Complete chart “French and Indian War” click here (leads into the next section)




Each day’s lessons will have separate closing activities. Day 1- vocabulary activity (vocabulary graphics); Day 2- draw and interpret Triangular Trade map; Day 3- PSD Analysis form, graphic organizer (Plotting the Story) and vocabulary test ; Day 4- PSD analysis form and graphic organizer (Song Comparison); Day 5- PSD analysis form and short response questions; Day 6- students will create spirituals.


Each day’s lessons will have separate evaluation procedures. Day 1- graded HW activity; Day 2- teacher rubric; Day 3- oral presentation rubric; Day 4- teacher rubric; Day 5- graded worksheet; Day 6- oral presentation, peer assessment, and teacher rubric


Using the arts as a means to teach and comprehend American history is imperative to develop a well-balanced student. The songs chosen depict a time period in American history that gives students insight to the lives of people who were involved in slavery in America.




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