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Sing Out Loud:
The Slave Spirituals
Historical and Cultural Implications during Reconstruction

by Tiffany Scripter
University of Idaho

Grade: 7-9
Time Allotment: Three 70-minute class periods
Subject Matter: Language Arts, Social Studies and History

In the late 1800's, the slave spirituals introduced black folk music to the American public. During Reconstruction, the young Jubilee Singers fought prejudice and poverty in the United States to bring spirituals to a white public in order to raise money for their teachers' school. After a successful world tour, the singers triumphantly returned to the Fisk University; however, they faced racist United States policy makers and the broken promises of Reconstruction.

Through the activities presented in this lesson, students will become familiar with slave spirituals, how the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University brought spirituals to a world audience, and the difficulties the singers and all former slaves encountered during the Reconstruction. In addition, students will express their own feelings about the slave spirituals through poetry.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Identify, summarize and present facts about the cultural, educational and political inequalities of the Reconstruction
  • Explain the hidden codes of the slave spirituals and their importance in slaves' communication
  • Create poetry to further examine personal feelings and knowledge of the spirituals


  • The List of Standards for the English Language Arts

    6. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience
    8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
    9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
    12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
  • United States History Standards for Grades 5-12
    Standard 3b The student understands the Reconstruction programs to transform social relations in the South. Explain the economic and social problems facing the South and appraise their impact on different social groups.
  • The National Standards for Arts Education
    http://artsedge.kennedy- Understanding music in relation to history and culture
    Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
    Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts

Media Components :
The: Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory (American Experience) Videocassette Dist. PBS Home Video, 2000

Web Sites:

  • Slave Spirituals -Traditional Slave Spirituals
    This site gives information on how the slave spirituals transformed American music from blues to jazz to rock and roll. Clicking on the names of the songs will download them, including "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."
  • Negro Spirituals
    A comprehensive site highlighted by an 1867 Atlantic Monthly article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson about the slave spiritual. The site includes spirituals you can download. Links include an index of spiritual titles and images and sounds of the slave spirituals.
  • Reconstruction -African Americans and the Pursuit of Education after the Civil War
    Just a few paragraphs, but this site contains succinct information about the state of African American education after the Civil War.
  • Reconstruction Resources online
    With links to Reconstruction, the Freedman's Bureau and African Americans during the post civil War era, this is a huge site with a lot of information. Be sure to check out the links to "Black Codes" and "Freedman's Bureau."
  • Timeline - The American Experience: the Jubilee Singers
    The PBS site accompanies the video. The timeline, people and events links are a rich starting off point for students.
  • The Encyclopedia Britannia guide to black history.
    Click on the timeline of 1863-1898. Click on the different eras for further links to people, places and events of the time. This is an easily navigable site with images. Click the study guide link then #1 In the left hand column, then scroll down until you see the heading "We Tell the Terrible Truth" for slave testimonies.
  • In a Slave's Own Words- American Slave Narratives:
    An Online Anthology
    An annotated list of former slaves who were interviewed by writers and journalists. Th
    ey provide first-hand accounts of their experiences on plantations, in cities, and on small farms."
  • Images- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
    Extensive collection of images of African Americans in the 19th century. Browse the collection and look at the images of Reconstruction and education.

Per student - Video Viewing Guide, "Jubilee Singers" ; Poetry worksheet;  Words and Images of Music Sheet; colored or construction paper; paper and pencil; poster board; markers/crayons

Prep For Teachers
Bookmark web sites; Have the plug-ins Real Audio and Windows Media Player installed for access to audio files;
Find spirituals online to download and copy; Prepare student materials; cue video tape.

Introductory Activities
Setting the Stage: Building Personal Connections
Introduce Reconstruction, Freedman's Bureau and schools, then go on and establish cultural and historical connections through discussion and Internet research.
To open the discussion, ask students "What does it mean to be free?" I would expect answers such as "When I move out of the house" and "When I'm ___" years old." Now that they are free, as students "what do you need to live?" List their responses on the board.

Tell students that with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, slavery was officially abolished in all areas of the United States. But now the slaves were free, what did they need to survive? Compare answers on the board and expand on them. Put the answers into categories.

Ask the students: Who helps you with these things when you move out? Who helped the slaves? Tell the students that the Reconstruction era in the South reintroduced the 11 Confederate states to the Union. However, during that time Northern armies still had to occupy the South and to enforce the decrees of Congress.

Building Historical Connections
Move into a context of the Reconstruction. Put students into five groups, (Reconstruction, Slave Spirituals, Timeline, In a Slave's Own Words, Images). Each group gets one poster board, glue, and markers. Tell students they will use these materials to present their final findings to the class.
Each group writes their topic on the top of the poster board.

  • Instruct the "Reconstruction" and "Slave Spirituals" to log on to the Internet and to find the 5 "W's" and "H" (who, what, when, where, why and how) of their topic. (Use Bookmarks) They are also to find images.
  • Instruct the "Timeline" group to map the important places, events and people from 1863-1898. (Use Bookmarks)
  • The "In a Slave's Own Words" and "Images" groups should find images of the Reconstruction, of Freedman schools, and former slaves talking about life during the Reconstruction. They are to print them out and create a poster board as well. (Use Bookmarks)

Have students present their findings to the class in a four-minute presentation. Students in the audience should be encouraged to ask questions.

Learning Activities
Explain to students they will be examining the struggles of Freedman schools and follow the career of the Jubilee Singers, who introduced slave spirituals to the world and white Americans in the era known as Reconstruction in the late 1860's.

Insert American Experience "Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory" in your VCR Explain to students you are going to watch a video about a choir from Fisk University who changed the world by singing slave spirituals. Handout Video Viewing Guide, asking them to write down the responses to the questions on the Guide. Tell them you will pause and stop the tape as necessary.
START the tape at the image of a man's face singing on the left side of the screen. PAUSE the tape at the image of trees reflected in a lake and a female narrator saying, "My mother took courage to await God's own time." Discuss Ella Sheppard's situation and why a mother would be driven to kill her own child. Discuss the despair and anguish of slaves' lives.

PLAY the tape until a male narrator says "it was cold and she had no shoes." and the screen shows a teacher at the black board at the front of the classroom. PAUSE Discuss the classroom and what you notice in the Freedman School. Give a few minutes for students to share their answers; possible answers include no heater, little light, little clothing and few supplies. PLAY the tape until an image of minstrel actor and a female voice says "Black singers did not appear on stage during this era except for the minstrel show." PAUSE
DISCUSS stereotypes. Instruct students to look closely at the image. Do they notice any exaggerations? Possible answers included large lips, bulging eyes, and rotten teeth. Ask students what they think this implies about what these actors do on stage?

FAST FORWARD to image of the sunset and the male narrator "The slave songs were associated with...." PLAY the tape. STOP tape at the image of a white haired, white bearded man who fills the screen. A male narrator says " making Fisk University a Southern showcase." FAST FORWARD to the image of an 1860's downtown street. The male narrator says "Throughout Tennessee and the rest of the South..." PLAY the tape.
STOP on the statue of a kneeling woman looking skyward and the narrator says, "epidemics were running rampant." DISCUSS with students that former slaves were moving in droves to the Northern cities, creating slums. What do you think The Jubilee Singers were leaving behind? What were they coming home to?

FAST FORWARD to the sunrise image and a woman's voice saying "may father forgive us." END when white words appear on a white screen "Jubilee singers from Fisk University continue..."

Step Two: Post Video Reflection
Direct the students to
complete the following prompt: By introducing and sharing slave spirituals to the world, the Jubilee Singers showed the world that.. Discuss the class' answers.

Culminating Activity
Start a discussion about how music affects moods. Ask: What music do you listen to when you relax, when you have a task to do, when you feel energetic?

Step One: recording the images and words of music -
Using the "Words and Images of Music" worksheet

  1. Read through the directions for using the "Words and Images of Music" worksheet with students
  2. Play a selected piece (Swing Low Sweet Chariot)
  3. Students may do one of three things:
    Listen only
    Draw a picture of what them music makes them think of.
    Write words that come to mind as they're listening to the music

  4. After the selection is over, allow time for students to discuss and share their thoughts about what the music made them think of in preparation for the next step
  5. Play the music two more times until the students have all completed the three tasks on the worksheet. They will need at least 10 words.

Step Two: Creating Poetic Phrases - Completing the Poetry Form

  1. Have the students select one word from their list to write about. (Example words: slaves, song, sadness)
  2. Have them write the word on line (1) of the Poetry Form Worksheet
  3. Encourage them to think of descriptive phrases and write on them on (2)
  4. Expand the description of the word and give an action to the word on line (3)
  5. Have the students complete all lines on the Poetry Form Worksheet

STEP THREE: Putting it All Together: Peer Editing and Writing the Poem

  1. Have students exchange papers with a partner and write their name on the paper. The peer editor should highlight the most descriptive lines and put a star next to phrases that could use more description and why.
  2. Instruct students to exchange papers with their partners when they are finished. They should use their favorite lines and their peer editor's suggestions to work their observations about the slaves spirituals into poetry. Remind them to title their poems.
  3. Show examples of poetry.
  4. Have a poetry reading of students completed poems


  • SOCIAL STUDIES/LANGUAGE ARTS/TECHNOLOGY Do power point show instead of poster, have each group research, create and present slide show
  • ART Musical - Have students learn to sing a spiritual. Discuss feelings and the emotions gospel singing produces. Have students write and perform their own spirituals.
  • DRAMA Students can write and perform skits based on historical events from the Reconstruction. Students can create a human time line. Individuals or groups dress up and research how a historical character would speak and act. A group may act out an event in history.
  • SOCIAL STUDIES Analyze the effect of time, place, and belief system on the interpretation "Steal Away." How can music be used to convey a mood that may not be an accurate portrayal of the subject of the song? How can music be "coded"? Are songs popular with young people today "coded" in any way?

Community Connections:
Invite a member of a diversity group to discuss his/her experiences and education
Participate in human rights activities
Find out how to prevent and stop the spread of racism in your area
Contact Amnesty International for information and resources about oppressed people and how international groups are helping them

Resources Consulted

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