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The WPA Slave Narratives lesson plan


How accurate are most “first-hand” historical accounts? Using a variety of resources, historians research, read, examine, and interpret as they struggle to portray the past. As in a courtroom where the testimony of an eye witness can so galvanize a jury that a verdict is forthcoming, so can eye-witness accounts of historical events and times reveal more clearly to the historian the certainty of his facts. Or can they? Should the reliability of eye witnesses be called into question? And how does this impact the writing of history? In this lesson, students will explore the answers to these questions as they are challenged to write an historical account of slave life in the United States, using the accounts of the slaves themselves as a primary source.


Mississippi Studies Framework: Competencies 1, 3, and 5.


Grades 4 (with modifications) through 12.


Mississippi History Now article

Slave narratives that accompany the article


The students will:

identify a variety of sources used by historians to write history;

recognize the value of historical narratives as a tool for historians;

realize the limitations of oral histories;

using narrative accounts, write some “history” regarding slave life in the United States;

explain the challenge of recording completely “accurate” history.


The teacher will arrange for someone not easily recognizable to the students to interrupt the class, spending only one or two minutes in the classroom. Afterwards, ask students to write down everything they can remember about the interruption, including a description of the person. As students compare their responses, give them time to discuss any discrepancies in their accounts and to try to account for them. Lead a discussion on the difficulties of getting a completely accurate accounting even from eye witnesses. Have students reach consensus on the descriptive elements on which they all agree.



Engage the students in a discussion of historians and how they research. Ask students to assume the role of an historian to write about an event, person, or time period connected to their family or community. Have them consider the many ways they might gain information about their topic and list their research sources in their notebook. From the class discussion that follows, students should identify additional sources for their lists. Ask them also to prepare a list of questions they would ask either an eyewitness or someone who lived through the period.


Teacher will discuss the use of narratives/oral history as a research tool of the historian. Have students brainstorm both the value of and limitations of such information. Inform the students of the collection of slave narratives and give them the background or have students read the first pages of the Mississippi History Now article.


Teacher will suggest to students that they once again take on the role of historian and write an account of the life of slaves. Ask if students would like to use the first-hand account of slaves themselves to help with their history. Read to them some of the short excerpts included in the article; after each one ask the students to write something in their notes to describe what was read and how the person described slavery. This activity should lead to a realization of differences in first-person accounts. Have students speculate on why there would be differences in these accounts.


Ask students to read sections three, four, and five of the article to discover additional reasons why perceptions of slave life would be different. Lead a class discussion to determine that students are beginning to realize the challenges of using narratives as a source for writing history.


Students should now make a chart, or a double web, detailing both the positives and negatives of using first-person accounts.


Introduce students now to the longer narratives included with the article and ask them to write an account of slave life as accurately as possible using the WPA narratives as their primary source. This possibly could be done in small groups with all students acting as editors to check for accuracy. Students could also include pictures and/or cartoons to illustrate their “history.”



In preparation for writing a final essay, ask students to refer to the following questions prepared by the author of the article and to discuss these in small groups. The author noted that with these and other questions in mind -- and the fascinating narratives of Mississippi’s ex-slaves before them -- students of Mississippi history can attempt to answer for themselves an age-old question: What was it like to be a slave? Students may take notes on material they wish to use as they write their essay.


How did the ex-slaves’ needy circumstances in old age and in the midst of the Great Depression contribute to their memories of an antebellum childhood or youth?


Is it possible that there are grains of truth in even the most conflicting memories?


Do memories of slavery differ because slave experiences differed?


To what degree did the racial values of a segregated age influence both the interviewers’ questions and the ex-slaves’ answers?


Do some slave memories seem more consistent with the known history of the past than others?


To what degree are historical judgments the product of a time and place?


Why are documents that once seemed so suspect so highly valued today?


What do these documents reveal that no other source could?


Ask students to write a summative essay on what they have learned about writing history and how it relates to writing a history of slave life. They should refer to some of the questions posed by the author as they write.



List of questions




Class participation/group participation





A visit by a local historian to discuss with students the challenges of writing history would be instructive.


Students may interview family members to write a family history, taking into account the limitations of oral histories and narratives.

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