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Hear Our Voices...
as we cry out for freedom

Imagine working from dawn to dusk, receiving only harsh words for your efforts, having people you love disappear from your life, and enduring regular beatings. This was daily life for many black slaves in North America for almost 250 years.

Many slaves were put to work on plantations in the American South, where tobacco, sugar, and, later, cotton were important crops. Others worked in white households as domestic servants. However, slaveowners and other businessmen who had an investment in slavery claimed that most slaves were content with their lot. Many whites throughout the country accepted this.

In truth, it is unlikely that any slaves were content. And many resisted their circumstances, sometimes by escaping or committing violent acts, more often by subtle means such as work slowdowns. Slavery in the United States was not completely abolished until after the American Civil War (1861-65), with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

If you were living in the 1800s, how could you let people know that slavery was wrong?

Abolitionists and others who opposed slavery created broadsides with pleas to end the institution. A broadside was a large sheet of paper printed on one side only that publicized social and political issues, often with the verse of a ballad. Today it might be called a leaflet.

Create a broadside that tries to convince slaveowners to free their slaves. You might direct your plea to the slaveowner himself or to his wife or teenage child, who might be able to influence him. Use quotes from slaves describing their situation and their desire for freedom. Add illustrations if you wish. Be as authentic and persuasive as possible.

Explore the articles under the subject Slavery and Abolitionism to familiarize yourself with the subject. Visit the timeline and view the events of 1790-1863: The Enslavement of Africans for additional information.


Create a broadside that tries to convince slaveowners to free their slaves. You might direct it to the slaveowner himself or to his wife or teenage child, who might be able to influence him. Include quotes from slaves describing their situation and their desire for freedom. Add illustrations if you wish. Be as authentic and persuasive as possible.

Students will use persuasive techniques to convince their audiences to take action against slaveholding. Students will state facts and opinions about slavery to support their cause of persuading slaveowners to free their slaves.


  • If only one computer is available in the classroom, have several students volunteer to take turns being "electronic scribes," who will gather and share their findings in small groups. Be sure these students understand the focus of the activity.
  • Students could be paired for this broadside activity, with one choosing quotes and other textual items, and the other collecting images and illustrations. They could collaborate on design.
  • Allow class time for planning and final presentation of completed broadsides. For this activity, English and American History classes could collaborate, with individual teachers taking responsibility for an activity objective.


A complete and appropriate broadside will:

  • show evidence of persuasive techniques
  • reflect an understanding of the audience and purpose for a broadside
  • use research findings effectively in text and images in the layout of the broadside


  • A broadside is defined as "a sizable sheet of paper printed on one side only, especially one publicizing a controversy or official proclamation." The impact of broadsides could be compared to the social and political impact of today’s flyers, pamphlets, and brochures that attempt to bring public attention to contemporary issues. (You could suggest that students use special paper, poster board, or another sturdy material.) You can find samples of historic broadsides in reference books (see Resources) and on the Web. One useful site is The African American Mosaic, a Library of Congress online exhibit. Click on "Abolition" and "Influence of Prominent Abolitionists" to see examples of broadsides. Use these samples to discuss the organization and design of these kinds of documents, and have students suggest the audiences for whom they were intended and how the goals of the broadsides might have been fulfilled. For the students’ own broadsides, discuss the following questions: How would you persuade a slaveowner’s wife to influence her husband? Could you appeal to the slaveowner’s children, his associates, or overseers? How?
  • Consider the techniques and materials of modern advertising, both commercial and social/political. How do today’s ads persuade us to buy, think, change, act? Have students bring some ads to class, or videotape examples from television to aid in the discussion of persuasive techniques. Urge students to define the intended audience for each ad and the "hooks" (or ways to convince an audience to take action) that are used to influence that audience. Have them suggest "hooks" for their slavery broadsides, such as strong quotations or phrases, a "rallying cry," powerful images/illustrations of slaves and their struggles. (See examples at The African American Mosaic.)
  • When the broadsides have been completed, students could "present them" by placing them on an easel and "hawking" the broadside’s plea, much as an old-time newsboy might have announced the front-page headlines. You may have to demonstrate this technique. Have students suggest other methods of presentation. Display the broadsides, perhaps in the school library, where others might appreciate them.


African Americans: Voices of Triumph., Vol. 1 Perseverance, Time-Life Books, 1993.
Volume one of a three-volume set on African Americans, Perseverance covers the struggle for freedom through such topics as slavery and abolitionism. Good collection of photos, illustrations, and reproductions. (See p. 80 for sample of a broadside.)

Daniel, Clifton (ed.), Chronicle of America, rev. ed., Dorling Kindersley, 1997.
A comprehensive record of events that shaped America from prehistory to 1995. Presents history as front-page news with 2,700 photos, reproductions, and illustrations.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 7th ed., McGraw Hill Text, 1994 (also in pbk.).
An updated edition of the preeminent history of African Americans, treating life in both Africa and the United States. Includes two full-page color inserts.

Miller, Randall M. (ed.), Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, Greenwood, 1997 (pbk. Praeger Pub Text, 1997).
A comprehensive reference on slavery, with a compilation of 300 articles and bibliography. The emphasis is on the social, institutional, intellectual, and political aspects of slavery. Reprint of original in paperback.