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Free, but not Free: Life of Free Blacks before the Civil War


Lesson Summary


The2012 series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the complex tapestry of American history through the stories ofcelebrity guests. This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores the life offree blacks in the United States prior to the Civil War, using video segmentsfrom Finding Your Roots Episode 9,highlighting the family histories of comedian Wanda Sykes and musician JohnLegend.

In the Introductory Activity, students explore thelives of free blacks in the U.S. before the 13th Amendment waspassed, and brainstorm ways blacks attained their freedom. Students view asegment exploring the lives of Wanda Sykes’s free black ancestors in the 1850sand learn how researchers discovered they were free.

In Learning Activity 1, students explore how WandaSykes’s ancestors gained their freedom in the 1600s. Students also viewsegments about how John Legend’s ancestor Peyton Polly gained his freedom andhow his children were freed, kidnapped, sold back into slavery, and eventuallyfreed again. In Learning Activity 2, students read articles about the Pollyfamily to gain new insights about the family’s road to freedom. Students learnabout how slaves gained freedom by serving in the Revolutionary War.

In the Culminating Activity, students reflect uponthe themes presented in the lesson and write reflection essays.


Aftercompleting this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Describeseveral ways in which blacks attained freedom prior to the Civil War.
  • Namerestrictions placed upon free blacks and the dangers they encountered prior tothe abolition of slavery.
  • Discussthe details of Peyton Polly’s family’s tough road to freedom.
  • Explainwhy the governor of Ohio tried to rescue the Polly children after they werekidnapped.
  • Describereasons why free blacks bought members of their own families as slaves.

Grade Level:


Suggested Time

(2) 45-minute class periods

Media Resources

Wanda Sykes’s Free Black Ancestors in the 1850s Video

Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s Video

The Story of Peyton Polly Video

The Story of Peyton Polly’s Children Video

Fighting for Freedom Video

Web Sites

For use in LearningActivity 2:

The Lesson


  1. Askstudents to describe what the 13th Amendment accomplished and whenit was passed. (It abolished slavery andwas passed in 1865).
  2. Askstudents to consider whether there were free blacks before the 13thAmendment was passed in 1865. If students say “yes,” ask them to think abouthow blacks became free before the end of slavery. (Accept all answers.) Ask students to consider when they thinkblacks might have first been free in the U.S. (Accept all answers.)
  3. Explainthat this lesson focuses on free blacks in the United States prior to the CivilWar, using segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates,Jr., which explores the history of the United States through the familystories of well-known Americans. This lesson uses segments from a FindingYour Roots episode highlighting the family histories of comedian WandaSykes and musician John Legend.
  4. Letstudents know you will be showing a video segment featuring Wanda Sykes’s freeAfrican American ancestors. As students view the segment, ask them to observe howresearchers knew that Wanda’s ancestors were free and not slaves. Also, askstudents to find out restrictions imposed upon free blacks like Wanda’sancestors.
  5. Playthe Wanda Sykes’s Free Black Ancestors in the 1850s Video. After showing thesegment, ask students to discuss how researchers knew Wanda’s ancestors inVirginia were free. (The marriage certificate,dated in 1853, 8 years before the Civil War began, shows that Wanda’s great-great- great-grandparents, John Francis and Elizabeth Banks, were free, sinceonly free people were able to legally marry.)
  6. Ask students to discuss what life was like forfree blacks in the South in the 1850s. (Theywere always in danger. Laws in various states prohibited them from voting,testifying against white people in court, and marrying across the color line.In Virginia, free people of color had to carry their papers with them to provethey were free. If they didn’t have free papers they could be thrown in jail orsold into slavery. Even when people had proper paperwork, sometimes theirpaperwork was taken away from them and torn up.)



  1. Askstudents to brainstorm how they think Wanda’s ancestors became free in thefirst place. (Accept all answers.)
  2. Introducethe next segment by letting students know that you are now going to show asegment that explores how Wanda’s ancestors on her father’s side of the familygained their freedom.
  3. Playthe Wanda Sykes’s Free Ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s Video. After showingthe segment, ask students how Wanda’s black ancestors gained their freedom.  (Her 9th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Banks, was white and her 9th great-grandfather was a black slave. Since the mother was free, her child was alsofree.)
  4. Ask students to discussthe ways that most slaves gained their freedom. (They could be given freedom by their previous owners in their wills. Also,if a child’s mother was free, the child was also free. However, if the motherwas a slave, the child was also a slave.)
  5. Explainthat now you are going to show video segments focusing on musician John Legend’s5th great-grandfather, Peyton Polly. As students view the segments,ask them to find out how John Legend’s ancestor gained his freedom and whathappened to his children after Peyton was freed.
  6. Playthe video segment The Story of Peyton Polly. After playing the segment, ask studentsto describe how Peyton Polly gained his freedom. (His master freed Peyton, Peyton’s brother, and son upon his death inhis will. His master also left Peyton land and money to start his life as afree man.)
  7. Askstudents to describe what happened to Peyton’s seven children that had beenenslaved in Kentucky. (Peyton’s brotherDouglas purchased them. Then Peyton and his children escaped to Ohio tofreedom.)
  8. Askstudents to discuss why Peyton’s brother, a former slave, might have purchasedhis relatives. (In order to protect them,so that they couldn’t be harmed by someone else.)
  9. Askstudents to predict what happened to Peyton and his children after escaping toOhio. (Accept all answers.)
  10. Play the video segment The Story of Peyton Polly’s Children. Ask students to describe what happened to Peyton and his childrenafter escaping to Ohio. [A band of armed,white men from Kentucky crossed the Ohio River and broke into Peyton’s home, kidnappingall eight children and taking them back to Kentucky. The kidnappers separatedand sold the children (ages 4-17) to masters in Kentucky and Virginia.]
  11. Askstudents what steps Peyton took to get his children back. (He went to the local prosecutor, who wrote Ohio Governor Rubin Woodabout the Polly family. The governor intervened and sent someone to Kentuckyand Virginia to investigate the matter. The House, Senate, and Governor of Ohiodid everything they could to try to rescue the Polly family. They sentinvestigators to find the kidnappers and spent thousands of dollars on lawyers.In Kentucky, the attorney general ordered the immediate release of the Pollychildren enslaved there. The state of Virginia refused to free the remainingfour Polly children who were enslaved in Virginia.)
  12. Askstudents to explain what finally led to the freedom of all the Polly children.(The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which officially ended slavery.)
  13. Leada discussion about Peyton Polly and his family. Ask students to share theirthoughts about what happened to the Polly children. Ask students to discuss whythey think the governor of Ohio tried to free the Polly children. (He didn’t want people from other statescoming into his state to kidnap people and take them out of the state.)


  1. Dividestudents into small groups. Ask each group to read one of the followingarticles about the Polly family. As students read the articles, ask them tofind out additional information about the story of the Polly family:
  2. Afterstudents have read the articles, ask each group to share its findings with theclass.
  3. Askstudents to discuss new insights they have gained from the articles about thestory of Peyton Polly and his family.
  4. Leada discussion about the ways in which slaves achieved freedom prior to thepassage of the 13th Amendment. (Possibleanswers: through provisions in masters’ wills or if they were born to a freewoman.)
  5. Askstudents to view the next segment to learn how the Revolutionary War helpedblacks attain their freedom.
  6. Playthe video segment Fighting for Freedom.After playing the segment, ask students todiscuss how the Revolutionary War helped blacks attain their freedom. (Slaves from the New England states couldfight in the Revolutionary War with permission from their masters. Uponcompleting their service, they would be granted freedom. In Virginia, slavescould not legally fight in the war, but some owners claimed their slaves werefree to get them to fight in their place. In 1783, a law was passed in Virginiathat granted freedom to anyone who served as a soldier in the Continental Armyin the Revolutionary War.)


  1. Lead a discussion aboutthe ways that free blacks tried to avoid danger and preserve their freedom forthemselves and their relatives. (Possibletopics to include: African Americans moved to states like Ohio where they couldlive freely. Some free blacks, like Peyton Polly’s brother, purchased familymembers as slaves so they could protect them and eventually bring them tofreedom.)
  2. Ask students to do oneof the following:
    • Imagine you lived in Peyton Polly’s time and you are a lawyer representing Peyton Polly. Write a letter to the government of Virginia outlining the reasons why his children should be returned to him and freed from slavery.
    • Writean essay comparing and contrasting the lives of Wanda Sykes’s free ancestors inVirginia in the 1850s and the life of Peyton Polly and his family.
  3. Ask studentsto share their writings with the class.