Teaching Slavery

A dark legacy comes to light

For students, lessons about a toxic past open a window onto the present.

The Washington Post interviewed students across the country in the spring of 2019 to discuss what lessons they are learning about slavery and its role in shaping the United States and what impact slavery has had on American society today.

Mia Jones, KIPP DC College Preparatory, Washington, D.C.

Courtesy of Mia Jones

“People say we shouldn’t spend as much time studying slavery … ‘You’re not getting whipped anymore, you’re not held against your will.’ But they’re not thinking about the bigger, bigger picture, like how you can look out the window and still see the aftermath of something that happened 150 years ago.”

Grace Casciato, Fort Dodge Middle School, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Wendy Casciato

“America used to rely on slavery a lot and just knowing that and how bad it was, it makes you never want to revert to something like that again. I think about that more and more. Before, you didn’t really see how bad it was. But they were beaten and raped and a bunch of terrible, terrible things happened to them. So I think it’s important to get deeper into that and then maybe when people realize this is serious, and some people were seriously messed up because of the things that happened to them, they won’t take it as a joke and they won’t think it’s funny and mess around during class when you’re supposed to be learning about it.”

Maggie Elsbecker, Fort Dodge Middle School, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Courtesy of Maggie Elsbecker

“I was doing a project looking more in-depth into the death penalty, and our justice system has a lot of noticeable bias in it. So, you’re more likely to be convicted if you’re black than if you’re white, and things like that have come as a result of slavery. It’s important to know what our tendencies are when we think about other people. Because when we look at [slavery], we can sort of see why it began. And so that can help us guard against other similar related things like discrimination, racism, sexism. Things like that.”

Keymora Douglas, Fort Dodge Middle School, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Family photo

“I like learning about slavery and stuff, but I think we should learn about our times now instead of slavery all the time. Learning about the past, you can’t really change anything. But you can change the future.”

Keigen Sueishu-Hague, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Berkeley, Calif.

Jon-David Hague

“I’ve learned a lot about slavery in my life, but until this year, I didn’t really know how much the slave owners were abusing them. I didn’t know how much they abused their powers or how they treated them as objects. It is pretty, pretty horrible. I think it’s very important to learn about it because this was a big mistake, for lack of a better word. It was a mistake that the Americans or the U.S. at the time made. I think a mistake like that, the only thing you can do is learn from it and change your ways.”

Jordan Rafael, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Berkeley, Calif.

Lisa Rafael

“I want to know more about the people who were enslaved. And I want to know more about their lives before slavery, I guess. Learning about certain things has definitely shocked me, like how women are treated while they were enslaved and how men who were slave holders would rape women in order to make more slaves and create a cycle. It was really kind of hard to hear. It’s really disgusting to me.”

Amari Bennet, Ramsay High School, Birmingham, Ala.

Courtesy of Amari Bennet

“Studying slavery kind of shows how we ended up where we are now, like the things we’ve gone through. How long it’s taken. And it also kind of explains some of what we’re going through now, why we’re still going through it, like the racial issues we’re going through now with police brutality. Even though we’ve progressed to such a vast extent from slavery times, we still have issues with civil rights that we’re dealing with today.”

Evan Bell, Ramsay High School, Birmingham, Ala.

Courtesy of Evan Bell

“There is always more to the story. Like we don’t know as many personal accounts [of slavery]. We get an overview of it. But when you get in-depth learning of it from a specific person and see what they went through, it gives you a whole other sense of how cruel it was and how bad it was.”

Alexandra Steffens, Concord Middle School, Concord, Mass.

Suzanne Kelliher

“The legacy of slavery in our country still exists. Obviously, there’s not slavery anymore, but the effects of it and the racial tensions, we still see today. I think a lot of times you learn about slavery, but you don’t learn about the actual cruelties of it and you just kind of see it as a big thing and not in individual acts. I think it’s interesting to look at it more closely.”

Bryson Smith, Concord Middle School, Concord, Mass.

Family photo

“I feel some teachers are worried about being insensitive to African American students. So they kind of direct their lessons with like a lighter, more friendly view. But I mean, slavery is serious. It’s a serious topic, so you can’t really lighten up the mood. It’s going to be hard to swallow, but you’ve just got to teach it because I mean it’s important to know.”

Hanna Dagnachew, Concord Middle School, Concord, Mass.

Courtesy of Hanna Dagnachew

“They’ve improved [teaching about slavery] a little, bit by bit, each year, but it’s still not what we’re looking for. They don’t really do what we ask. We asked to go in to depth about it, not to be read to or not to just read articles and watch TED talks.”

Kendall Colleran, Concord Middle School, Concord, Mass.

Kristen Kenney

“Slavery has always been part of the curriculum and always a really sensitive topic. One of the benefits of starting to talk about it so early is we become comfortable talking about it, and it makes it easier to sympathize with what people went through.”

Mya Gonzales, Broad Run High School, Ashburn, Va.

Courtesy of Mya Gonzales

“If you don’t teach about slavery, if our kids don’t know about it, you’re missing a huge part of how America was started. It’s important to know how much slaves impacted America, whether it was working on plantations, or building things, or just how much they contributed to physically building America when they obviously weren’t getting anything out of it.”

Sebastian Drake, Ernest Childers Middle School, Broken Arrow, Okla.

Family photo

“I’ve learned about slavery throughout the years of school, and I know the basic premise of it. But I feel in past years teachers made it seem like, ‘Oh, well, they just didn’t like each other, so they just separated.’ Like, they fluff it up for you. And I’ve been learning this year about the things that white people would say to black people, and the way they would treat them, and I just don’t understand how you do that. It’s mistreating another person for no reason.”

Drew Lam, Sequoyah Middle School, Broken Arrow, Okla.

Photo by Andrew Lam

“Just last week, I learned about how they would observe [slaves], look at their teeth and just all over them like how you would look at a horse that was being sold off. It’s not like I knew they were treated like animals, literally treated like animals. The older you get, the more you realize the true brutality of it. It’s still one of America’s skeletons in the closet, but it’s important, and it should be talked about so that people can learn and be aware.”

Justice Sutton, Ernest Childers Middle School, Broken Arrow, Okla.

Courtesy of Justice Sutton

“What surprised me was the fact that not all people in the North wanted to get rid of slavery. I always had this misconception that they were all against it, but now I find that some of them wanted it.”

Sydney Reidy, Ernest Childers Middle School, Broken Arrow, Okla.

Courtesy of Sydney Reidy

“I did not know our history was so dark. I feel like it was hidden to make it look better. There’s just a lot that I was never taught or talked about. It’s really, really, really bad. It’s hard to go back and look at.”