Teaching Hard History

A Framework for Teaching American Slavery

Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of the United States—or how its legacies still influence us today. In an effort to remedy this, we developed a comprehensive guide for teaching and learning this critical topic at the middle and high school levels. (Scroll down to see the outline of the framework or to download the full document.)

Here are a few key elements of the framework and the accompanying resources:

Key Concepts and Summary Objectives  Important big ideas and critical content students must know to understand the historical significance of slavery. (Select the Summary Objectives below to see teaching suggestions and additional resources.)

Primary Source Texts  The Teaching Hard History Library features over 100 student-friendly sources, all with text-dependent questions.

Teaching Tools  Browse six sample Inquiry Design Models, based on The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.

Podcast  Hosted by Professor Hasan Jeffries, this series brings us the lessons we should have learned in school through the voices of leading scholars and educators.

Student Quizzes  Use these quizzes as formative assessments and tools to help teach this hard history.

Webinar  Join Professor Hasan Jeffries and former Teaching and Learning Specialist Lauryn Mascareñaz for this on-demand PD.

Printable Cards  Download and display these cards to let people know you have the courage to teach #HardHistory.


Download the Framework


Key Concepts


  1. Slavery, which Europeans practiced before they invaded the Americas, was important to all colonial powers and existed in all North American colonies.
  2. Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the colonial economies and what is now the United States.
  3. Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court and Senate from 1787 through 1860.
  4. “Slavery was an institution of power,” designed to create profit for the enslavers and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.
  5. Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.
  6. The experience of slavery varied depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding and gender.
  7. Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.
  8. Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery.
  9. Enslaved and freed people worked to maintain cultural traditions while building new ones that sustain communities and impact the larger world. 
  10. By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, we gain insight into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans aspired to, created, thought and desired. 

Download the Key Concepts


Teaching Hard History American Slavery Pre-Colonial

Pre-Colonial and Colonial Era (to 1763)

Summary Objective 1

Students will recognize that slavery existed around the world prior to the European settlement of North America.

Summary Objective 2

Students will be able to describe the slave trade from Africa to the Americas.

Summary Objective 3

Students will be able to discuss the labor and culture of enslaved people during the colonial era.

Summary Objective 4

Students will be able to demonstrate the impact of slavery on the economies of French, British and Spanish North America.

Teaching Hard History American Slavery Constitution

The American Revolution and the Constitution (1763-1787)

Summary Objective 5

Students will identify ways that slavery was a key component of the escalating conflicts between England and the North American colonies in the period from 1763 and 1776.

Summary Objective 6

Students will describe the ways African Americans participated in the Revolutionary War in support of both sides.

Summary Objective 7

Students will demonstrate the ways that the Constitution provided direct and indirect protection to slavery and imbued enslavers and the slave states with increased political power.

Teaching Hard History American Slavery Building the Nation

Slavery in the Early Republic (1787-1808)

Summary Objective 8

Students will examine the way the Revolutionary War affected the institution of slavery in the new nation. Students will examine the ways that slavery shaped domestic and foreign policy in the early Republic.

Summary Objective 9

Students will examine the rapid expansion of cotton slavery across the southern United States.

Teaching Hard History American Slavery Expansion

The Expansion of Slavery (1808-1848)

Summary Objective 10

Students will understand the contours of the domestic slave trade as part of the nation’s economic and geographic expansion.

Summary Objective 11

Students will be able to describe the principal ways the labor of enslaved people was organized and controlled in the antebellum United States.

Summary Objective 12

Students will understand the growth of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and the slaveholding states' view of the movement as a physical, economic and political threat.

Summary Objective 13

Students will understand that enslaved people resisted slavery in ways that ranged from violence to smaller, everyday means of asserting their humanity and opposing the wishes and interests of their enslavers.

Summary Objective 14

Students will be able to discuss the culture of enslaved Americans and its impact on American culture in general.

Teaching Hard History American Slavery Sectional Crisis

The Sectional Crisis and Civil War (1848-1877)

Summary Objective 15

Students will examine the expansion of slavery as a key factor in the domestic and foreign policy decisions of the United States in the 19th century.

Summary Objective 16

Students will discuss the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent decision that several slave states made to secede from the Union to ensure the preservation and expansion of slavery.

Summary Objective 17

Students will examine the evolving Union policies concerning slavery and African-American military service and understand that the free black and enslaved communities affected the Civil War.

Summary Objective 18

Students will examine the ways that people who were enslaved claimed their freedom after the Civil War.

Summary Objective 19

Students will examine the ways that the federal government’s policies affected the lives of formerly enslaved people.

Summary Objective 20

Students will examine the ways that white Southerners attempted to define freedom for freedpeople.

Summary Objective 21

Students will examine the impact of the Compromise of 1877 and the removal of federal troops from the former Confederacy.

Summary Objective 22

Students will examine the ways in which the legacies of slavery and of white supremacy continue to affect life in the United States.

This collection includes more than 100 primary sources selected to support teaching and learning about the Key Concepts and Summary Objectives found in this framework.

These Inquiry Design Models, based on The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, offer examples of an inquiry-based approach to teaching the history of American slavery.

What we don’t know about American slavery hurts us all. From Teaching Tolerance and host Hasan Jeffries, Teaching Hard History brings us the lessons we should have learned in school through the voices of leading scholars and educators. It’s good advice for teachers, good information for everybody.

Educators looking for a way to broach the topic of slavery in 6-12 classrooms can begin with this short quiz. All 12 questions are mapped to the Key Concepts found in the framework.