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Slavery: Acts of Resistance

In this activity students compare an excerpt of a WPA interview with an ex-slave with a more famous statement by Frederick Douglass to arrive at their own interpretations of slave resistance. This lesson is designed to work with the film Doing As They Can, but parts of it can be completed without the film.


  • Students will compare two statements by former slaves to identify and interpret acts of resistance.  

  • Students will create a journal entry from the perspective of a slave describing how he or she would respond to the conditions of enslavement.  


Step 1: Divide students into small groups of 3-5 people. Individually, students should read the two documents, "No Progress Without Struggle!" and Josie Jordan's description of malitis. 

Step 2: In their groups students should discuss and answer the following questions.

Questions for "No Progress Without Struggle"

  • Reading comprehension: Underline or list vocabulary words that you believe are key to understanding Douglass's message.  Look them up in the dictionary, if necessary.  What do these words mean?  How do they contribute to the message Douglass is trying to get across?

  • List and discuss examples of specific actions you believe Douglass wanted slaves to take in response to their enslavement.  At the same time, what specific behaviors or actions do you believe Douglass might have critiqued?  

Questions for "Malitis"

  • Reading comprehension: What was "malitis"? Summarize the actions of the slaves on this plantation.  

  • Analysis of the source's "point of view" (not opinion, but vantage point): Whose point of view is revealed here?  How does this source's point of view compare with that of Douglass?

  • How might Douglass have responded to this story? Would he have considered these slaves' actions to be a form of what he called "resistance"?  "Agitation"? "Struggle"?  

  • How might a white observer such as a journalist visiting from the North, or the master himself, have interpreted these slaves' behavior and their attitudes about slavery?

  • Read pages 9-10 of Doing As they Can Viewer's Guide and consider what you saw and heard in the video.  List and give examples of the various ways in which slaves responded to their situations.  Into which category would you put Douglass and his message?  What about the slaves from the "Malitis" reading?  

Step 3: Still as a group, students should use the worksheet to construct an identity for a particular slave on a plantation and to discuss how that slave might react to his or her situation.  

Step 4: Ask students to individually write journal entries, from the perspective of the characters they created in Step 3, about what that persons' situation was like and what strategies he or she would have taken in response.  Students' journal entries should draw upon what they have learned form the documents and their group's discussion (and the video and viewer's guides, if applicable).  

Step 5: When finished, have students share their journal entries with their groups and discuss the following questions:

  • How and to what extent did the identities and situations of particular slaves affect their responses to enslavement?  

  • What major conclusions and further questions emerged from the group about the slaves and their responses to slavery?  

Historical Context

In the antebellum period, many southern as well as northern commentators on slave life countered abolitionist opinion by arguing that slaves were content with their existence. Well into the twentieth century, historians tended to agree. To support their argument historians often noted that massive slave revolts, while common in Latin America and the Caribbean, were rare in the United States (the 1831 revolt of Nat Turner being a major exception). In recent decades, though, based in part on the study of new sources such as interviews with ex-slaves concluded in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, scholars have suggested that African Americans were resistant and resourceful within the harsh confines of slavery.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Slavery: Acts of Resistance,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 27, 2023,

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