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In the Classroom > African Americans Lessons

The Cost of Success: Examining the Lives of Two Accomplished Slaves

Grade Level: High School

Massachusetts History and Social Science Frameworks

United States History I

USI.7 Explain the roles of various founders at the Constitutional Convention. Describe the major debates that occurred at the Convention and the “Great Compromise” that was reached. Major Debates:

  • B. the rights of individuals
  • D. slavery

Summary and Objective

Lucy Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley were Massachusetts slaves who accomplished great things but at what cost? Was it worth the horrible experience of enslavement for them to be able to become accomplished writers? Students will understand that although enslaved people had no control over their own lives, sometimes opportunities or situations occurred which would have otherwise been denied them.

Needed for the Lesson

  • The Selling of Joseph (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1h301t.html)
  • “The Bars Fight”
  • “Lucy Terry Prince”
  • Phillis Wheatley (http://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=57)
  • “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
  • “To the University of Cambridge”
  • Teaching the Lesson

    Samuel Sewall was a member of the Governor's Council in Massachusetts from 1691 to 1725. In 1700, he wrote a piece titled, The Selling of Joseph, in which he condemned the practice of keeping slaves. Although he said that, "they [slaves] can seldom use their freedom well", he also stated that, "Evil must not be done that good may come of it", and "Liberty is in real value next unto Life: None ought to part with it themselves, or deprive others of it". Lucy Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley both proved Sewall wrong by using well their captivity and their freedom. However, would Sewall have thought it was worth having been enslaved to accomplish what they did? What do today's students think?

    As students read about these two remarkable women, they should keep lists of the negative and positive aspects of the lives of these slaves. Then hold a class discussion to answer/discuss the following:

    • Finish this sentence, “Yes, Lucy and Phillis were slaves, but…”
    • Finish this question, keeping it a question, “Yes, Lucy and Phillis accomplished great things, but…” (Example- Were they happy?)

    Use the two questions above repeatedly to list whatever concerns students express.

    Also ask:

    • When considering the lists of positives and negatives, what should be given the most consideration? Reorder each list by priority.
    • What do you think Sewall would have said if he had known these two women?
    • Had they not been slaves, do you think Lucy and Phillis might have accomplished what they did? Why or why not? What obstacles would they have faced?

    Hold a class vote to decide whether these two women should have been either:

    • given a life with no slavery but in exchange for not having accomplished anything
    • OR
    • given the lives that they did have

    Possible answers to the discussion questions

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