What were the legal and material constraints on slaves’ lives and work?

There are many avenues of approach to the topic of the history of slavery. A student can focus on the bare economics of it: the money invested and the money made and how that helped America become a large and prosperous nation. Or one could analyze the political implications that came about as a result of the dependence of the South on cotton agriculture, compared to the increasingly diversified and industrializing economy of the North. Indeed, students of this history often find that the more they learn, the more questions they have. But perhaps the best way to learn about slavery is from the words of individuals who were able somehow to communicate their experiences to others, so that 160 years later we can get a glimpse into that life and attempt to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

This assignment will introduce students to Sojourner Truth, a woman who became quite famous for her work on behalf of women’s rights and abolition. In this short speech, Truth bares the emotional pain of her experience, but she also gives the student of history an incisive glimpse into the intersection of two reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century: abolition and women’s rights.


Document 1 is a pair of maps that highlight the spread and increase of cotton agriculture that occurred across the South and the West of the United States after the War of 1812. Cotton agriculture was slave-labor-intensive. Therefore, seeing the high density of cotton production in particular areas, one can get an idea of the number of slaves living in those regions and, with all of the information gathered, can begin to imagine what life was like in those environments for the individuals involved, individuals such as Sojourner Truth.

Document 2 is a videotaped performance of the speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth. Before viewing the video, however, students need to analyze Document 1.


1. Read the textbook Chapter 11 through 13.

2. Analyze the maps of Document 1, which highlight the spread and increase of slave-fueled agriculture across the southern and western states. Using the information in the text, try to imagine the economics of the areas. In other words, who had the economic power? Who dominated politically? What were some of the consequences of that?

3. View Document 2, the video of the actor Alfre Woodard’s performance of a speech given by the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

4. Answer the questions that follow and be sure to label your answers and submit in the inbox below in the accepted formats.


1) Describe Document 1. What can you tell by analyzing the maps and what is their purpose? 

3) What were the legal and material constraints on slaves’ lives and work?

4) Describe the ways in which the institution of slavery was distinctive to enslaved women.

5) Document 2: Who is the specific target audience for Sojourner Truth’s plea?

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