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. I think going on the field trip and now reading the article helped me find out so much more information about the history of slavery I didn’t know before. It is not something that we should be avoiding but taking the past and bringing it to the present and remembering.

  2. When learning and discussing about slavery I usually tend to forget the importance and impact the Slave Trade had on African American families today. Many people may have different names than their real African family name due to this horrific act and it’s something that would greatly frustrate me if I was in that situation. I also thought it was interesting that we didn’t have a whole lot of primary sources until quite recently and also quite ironic seeing that slavery could have been a possible start to racism and the fact that many Americans, including Presidents, did not see the harm in owning slaves.

  3. With this article and the field trip we just took, I gained so much more information then I had ever had. I knew that slavery was an ugly past of our history as Americans but I was not as aware that it is still going on today. I do believe that the TRUE history should be known. Not just what we are saying happened.

  4. This topic was a very informative topic. I have noticed that slaveru history is a topic that people tend to stay away from or ignore it as if it never existed. But in reality, this is important because it explains the reasoning behind why African Americans today still struggle to catch up. Because of the impact of slavery, it does make it harder for African Americans to know their true history because it was taken away from them. Though this topic may be uncomfortable for others, it’s a necessary topic that everyone should learn

  5. As an African-American myself, I do sometimes “cringe” when I hear or learn anything new about slavery because I know my ancestors were the ones who went through this but there is also another side of me that calms me. This isn’t something that is to be forgotten because it was and still is the most devastating thing to happen to African-Americans, but we overcome and conquered, just like we did with The Civil Rights Movement. I try to imagine what life would be like if these things would have never happened? Would there have been a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Barack Obama, and many, many more African-American historical figures that have contributed to the African-American community. Some individual even think that slavery no longer exists… well they are wrong. My advice to these people… visit the Underground Railroad Freedom Center and you let me know what you see and hear! It still exists, but its invisible. This article can definitely be an add on to the resources listed in Part 2.

  6. I, myself, do not have much knowledge on slavery because I only know what was taught to me in middle school and a little bit of high school, but I agree that slavery was a very ugly chapter in history. Although, I do feel like this article is a bit biased. In my opinion, I do not think that slavery still affects today’s community. Their ancestors may have been affected by that horrible time period but I do not think that today’s generations are affected by slavery because just like me, they probably also only know what was taught in school. As of today, if an African American family or individual is struggling financially or educationally, I believe it has nothing to do with slavery and it does with the individual themselves because I do not think it is right to still blame slavery for today’s problems. There are many other races that struggle financially and educationally as well.

  7. Not being able to research or know who your ancestors are because of the slave trade is an issue I had not even considered. It is an issue that is not brought up enough or even acknowledged. By teaching in classrooms the true history of slavery and the impacts the Black community still faces today from it, the more aware people will become. It is true that slavery is viewed as a “historical time period,” when in reality it is not far in America’s past, and the Black community is still affected by it today.

  8. I agree that slavery is not brought up as much as I’m sure it used to. I feel as if everyone wants to forget about it and pretend it did not really happen. I did not realize that this makes it difficult for black families to find their ancestors because of the slave trade. That has to be the most frustrating thing to deal with and I could not imagine going through that. I do believe that slavery needs to be talked about more in our classrooms, especially in younger classrooms. students need to be aware of what our country once went through and what so many people had to endure.

  9. This article really makes me feel terrible. THe picture itself before the article just is crazy to me, i cannot believe that human beings were sold off like this.

  10. I could not imagine not knowing whom was my real and biological family. I’m sure that they had a difficult time with that, during that time. Yet, I am sure they were all there for each other during this awful time. As well as knowing how much money you really could have. Being forced to do free labor I am sure would be the absolute worst. I hate going to work most days, but know I just need to work for the money part. I am sure it was really bad and no fun when they were forced upon doing physical labor for free.

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