Historical Witness, Social Messaging Lesson Plan Breaking the Chains, Rising Out of Circumstances

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J. Paul Getty Museum
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Historical Witness, Social Messaging Lesson Plan
Breaking the Chains, Rising Out of Circumstances (Advanced Level)

Grades: High School (9–12)

Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science

Time Required: 2–3 class periods plus independent research

Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff
Lesson Overview

Advanced-level students will write narratives from the perspective of slaves depicted in rare photographs, and then create a print depicting a moment from the narratives.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • discuss a photograph and write a descriptive narrative using sensory details.

  • identify the events leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation and speculate what life was like for newly freed slaves in 19th-century America.

  • write journal entries from the perspective of a freed slave in the 19th century.

  • create a print using scratch foam.

Featured Getty Artwork

Slaves of Rebel General Thomas F. Drayton, Henry P. Moore


  • Reproduction of Slaves of Rebel General Thomas F. Drayton by Henry P. Moore

  • Background Information and Questions for Teaching about the photograph

  • 5 x 8-inch cards

  • Student Handout: Photographic Details

  • Scratch foam or styrofoam trays like those used for packaged meat

  • Pencils

  • Printer‘s ink

  • Brayers (low-cost alternatives include rolling pins or used spray canisters turned on their sides)

  • Inking plate

  • Scratch paper

  • 8 ½ x 11 inch copy paper

  • Sink to rinse brayers, scratch foam, and inking plates

- Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War by Jackie Napolean Wilson (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) (optional)
Lesson Steps

  1. Display a reproduction of the photograph Slaves of Rebel General Thomas F. Drayton by Henry P. Moore. Have students take the time to look closely at the work of art then ask them the following questions:

  • What do you see?

  • What do you notice about these people? What else?

  • What are these people wearing/not wearing?

  • How are the women in this photograph posed differently from the men? What does that tell us about the way the women were viewed?

  • What else do you notice?

  • Look closely at the background. What can you identify?

  • What is on the ground? How do you know this?

  1. Distribute 5 x 8-inch cards and ask students to write a paragraph that describes the photograph and includes a minimum of five sensory details. Instruct students to consider what they could see, hear, smell, taste, or touch if they were in the photograph. Next have students select a single figure from the photograph. Pass out the handout Photographic Details. Instruct students to look closely at all the details about the person they chose to focus on, and then answer the questions in the handout. Discuss responses as a class.

  1. Instruct students to identify the events leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. The following Web resources might be helpful:

  • "The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act” on the PBS Web site Africans in America (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2951.html)

  • “Conditions of antebellum slavery” on the PBS Web site Africans in America (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2956.html)

  1. Distribute reproductions of rare portraits of African Americans from the book Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War or display the following photographs in the Getty Museum’s collection:

    • Portrait of a Seated Black Child with Hands Crossed, Unknown Artist (www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=56207)

  • Smiling Man, Unknown Artist (www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=64455)

  • Gentleman Caller, Unknown Artist (www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=64459)

Explain that these portraits were made at a time when African Americans were almost invisible in U.S. history. During the 19th century, not many African Americans had the resources to have a portrait of themselves created.

  1. Have students select one portrait from the examples provided and write five to 10 journal entries from the perspective of that individual. Explain that they will create journals in the tradition of pioneer African American writers of slave and biographical narratives. Further explain that slaves were prohibited by law from learning to read or write. Additionally, you could have students orally recite an entry from a day in the life of a slave. You may want to take a look at “Slave Laws Relating to Speech and Assembly” on Wake Forest University‘s Web site (www.wfu.edu/~zulick/340/slavecodes.html). Possible journal topics could include the following:

    • type of work conducted as a slave

    • relationship with owner

    • details about family

    • the day the Emancipation Proclamation was announced

    • life after the Emancipation Proclamation

    • a dramatic moment

Remind students to include many sensory details in their writings. The journal entries should span the years of the individual‘s life from when he or she was a slave through the days or months following his or her freedom. Students can conduct research with Web resources like “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” on the PBS Web site Africans in America (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2924t.html).

  1. Tell students to select a dramatic moment from their journals and create a foam print that illustrates the moment. You may wish to show students an example of an image depicting a dramatic moment, such as the illustration “Flogging a Slave Fastened to the Ground” on the PBS Web site Africans in America (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h1528b.html).

  1. Distribute paper, printer’s ink, scratch foam, brayers, inking plates, and pencils. Instruct students to warm up by learning about the properties of their art materials and by using a pencil to incise a drawing in the foam. Have students roll a brayer in ink on an inking plate until it is coated, then roll the brayer evenly across the foam surface. Next, instruct students to press the inked side of the foam onto a piece of paper. After students create several test prints on scratch paper, instruct them to create a new foam plate for their final print. Instruct students to create three prints and select the best one for their journal cover.


Students will be assessed on their participation in group discussions and their ability to provide five to 10 journal entries with sensory details from the perspective of the individual they selected. Students’ illustrations should reflect a dramatic moment from their journal entries.

Standards Addressed
Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–8

Production and Distribution of Writing

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grades 9–12 (Proficient)

2.0 Creative Expression

2.6 Create a two or three-dimensional work of art that addresses a social issue.
History—Social Science Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 10

10.3 Students analyze the effects of the Industrial Revolution in England, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States.

4. Trace the evolution of work and labor, including the demise of the slave trade and the effects of immigration, mining and manufacturing, division of labor, and the union movement.
Grade 11

11.1 Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of Independence.

4. Examine the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the industrial revolution, including demographic shifts and the emergence in the late nineteenth century of the United States as a world power.
Grade 12

12.9 Students analyze the origins, characteristics, and development of different political systems across time, with emphasis on the quest for political democracy, its advances, and its obstacles.

© 2008 J. Paul Getty Trust

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