Black History Series Part 3: Learning about Slavery through Digitized Primary Source Documents

Run Away Slave Ad for Slave Family, 1847, St. Louis. Mo. Credit- Library of Congress

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The phenomenon that has had the most devastating impact on African Americans in the United States has been the institution of slavery. Between the years of 1500-1866 an estimated 10-15 million enslaved Africans were transported from Africa to the Americas in what is known as the slave triangle. Slavery brought about unspeakable horrors. In fact, physical assault, rape, illness, illiteracy, malnourishment, separation of families and murder were commonplace in the life of the slave.

Impact of Slavery on the Black Community Today
Today many Americans balk at even the mention of slavery, as if it is a subject best forgotten. They likely react this way out of frustration over race relations and the seeming impasse the United States has come up against with conversations about racial reconciliation. Indeed many argue that it happened so long ago, why should the topic even be brought up? However, the history of slavery is an ugly chapter in American history that still continues to have a negative impact on the black community even today. Slavery has effected the black family, the economy, education and entire social structure of the African American community. For example, many black families cannot accurately identify ancestors and construct their own genealogy because of the impact of the slave trade. And in terms of economics, it is almost incalculable the amount of financial loss the African American community has undergone due to years of forced free labor. Furthermore, African Americans today are still playing “catch up” educationally because of limited access to education during slavery and more recently in the Jim Crow era.

A Number of Digitized Resources are Available Online
Thus, in honor of black history month it is necessary to provide some resources for the study of the institution of slavery in the United States. There is a lot of new research and information emerging because many of the documents, photos and records from that time period have only recently been accessible to the public and researchers. Many of the resources for the study of American slavery are now being digitized by various institutions and can now be easily accessed via the Internet for teaching and learning. Below we have provided some digital primary sources that teachers can use to assist in teaching about the history of slavery.

Slave Narratives (Written and Audio)
Ex Slaves talk about Slavery in the USA
Were Slaves Really “Well-Fed”? Tour the Whitney Plantation and Find Out | ESSENCE Live
A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw
Life and Adventures of Venture | Venture Smith
Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories

Articles and Primary Source Documents
History of Slave Narrative
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I.
Venture Smith Biography
A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, but Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America.
The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher, 1811
John Jea  Biography

Letters From Slaves
Slave Letters- Duke Library
Three Letters That Former Slaves Sent To Their Masters
Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson Slave Letters, 1837-1838 From the Campbell Family Papers An On-line Archival Collection Special Collections Library at Duke University
Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson Slave Letters in the Campbell Family Papers Letter to Eliza from Hannah Valentine, November 1, 1837
Letter from Westly Townsend, An Emancipated Slave, 1850’s
Letters from the Slave States, 1857 (Book)
Letter from A Slave Holder, Camden Court House, N[orth] C[arolina], to William Lloyd Garrison
Bill of sale for one slave
girl: 11 y.o., 32 pounds and 10 shillings, from Absalom Lancaster to Thomas
Bills of Sale of Slave Children

Runaway Slave Ads
North Carolina Runaway Slave Ads
Fugitive Slave Ads
Transcriptions of Virginia Gazette Runaway Slave Ads
Texas Runaway Slave Project
The Geography of Slavery in Virginia

Misc Primary Sources
The Anti-Slavery Alphabet: 1846 Book Teaches Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils
Library of Congress Search: Slaves and the Courts, 1740 to 1860

Secondary Sources/ References
African-American History: Modern Freedom Struggle (A Free Course from Stanford)
The History Behind a Slave’s Bill of Sale
An Archive of Fugitive Slave Ads Sheds New Light on Lost Histories
Massive New Database Will Finally Allow Us to Identify Enslaved Peoples and Their Descendants in the Americas


  1. Contrary to popular belief, slavery was not as long ago as many think. The affects of slavery still are greatly impacted today. The thought of being able to know our ancestors is a privilege many wouldn’t think to have, but because of slavery it is.

  2. The webpage offered a deep exploration that widened my understanding of slavery outside of what I knew. I think that by forming a digitized way of seeing slavery allowed me to better understand and see a timeline of it.

  3. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays..

    • Thank you for your comment, kindness and reading the blog. This site is housed and funded by our local NPR station (Cincinnati Public Radio). I have complete creative control of the content.

  4. Not being able to know who your ancestors are because of slavery is something I haven’t even thought about. This, like a lot of things is left out in our learning of this chapter of our history. I believe learning about slavery in depth in the classroom is necessary to understand American History and how we can still see traces of it in society today. While it may be uncomfortable for people to hear, it is a very important topic that we can’t just pretend didn’t happen.

  5. Learning about slavery in education is a start to understanding its impact on American History and the effects it has on today’s society. It covers more than 300 years of American History and therefore should be brought up more than just black history month. It is also important to note that Kentucky and Ohio were very different states during that time in history and that there are many resources available that teachers can use to teach about slavery and how it was so close to our front door’s. Taking the trip to the Freedom Center, for only the second time, has opened my eyes to how wicked and corrupt slavery was around the world but especially right here in America, right outside my window.

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