‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 16 pages.
In this role play, students become members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, facing many of the real challenges to ending slavery.

  • Time Periods: Early 19th Century: 1800 - 1849, Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864, 19th Century | Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights, Organizing, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery | Reading Levels: Adult, Grades 6-8, High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)

‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement (Free Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History“Who here would have been against slavery if you suddenly found yourself living in those times?”

I’ve asked a version of this question to many U.S. history classes over the years.

Every student raises a hand.

“So what exactly would you have done to end slavery?”

Puzzled looks are generally the response to this question. What should we do, what can we do, when we are confronted by the enormity of an injustice like slavery? It’s not an easy question for my students, and it wasn’t an easy question for the people who opposed slavery in those times. The answers were struggled over in the abolition movement, one of the most significant social movements in U.S. history, but underappreciated in today’s history curriculum.

. . . .

‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement (Free Teaching Activity) - Black Abolitionists | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Learn about dozens of Black abolitionists here.

I created a role play in which every student in class portrayed a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). As the AASS, the class would encounter some of the difficult strategic choices that confronted the actual organization throughout its history. I’d be present as teacher to observe and take notes, but I would play no role in their deliberations. My hope was that students would taste a bit of the uncertainty but also the exhilaration that actual anti-slavery organizers experienced as they sought to abolish the greatest injustice of their time.


This lesson was published by Rethinking Schools in an edition of Rethinking Schools magazine, Saving Our Schools from Superheroes (Summer 2010). See Table of Contents.

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There are 5 comments by other visitors:

  • I had my students take on the personas of real and imaginary people who attended Rev John Allen’s meeting in Philadelphia that actually took place to discuss the Colonization back to Africa movement. I added to the discussion, the issue of whether to fight slavery violently or non-violently, referencing the anger of the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1796. Each student was to take a position of both matters, prepare for the meeting, and argue their position. After, I had them reflect on how they felt about their positions and if anyone had changed their minds, how, and why? It ended up being one of the most eye-opening and gratifying activities for both the students and me.

    Response shared by Nella LaRosa-Waters — December 25, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

  • I think this is wonderful. I hope people all around the country will climb on board.

    Response shared by Joyce West — July 1, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

  • This is so important – all people need to know the history and never to forget it.

    Response shared by Joyce West — July 1, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

  • December 2014 we need these teaching guides to establish a base for action and to teach the history that this is not the first time for the actions we have seen recently in the headlines. We have the opportunity to improve our defiance, outrage and strategies.

    Response shared by Sheila — December 4, 2014 @ 11:37 am

  • Waking up the Giants

    Response shared by SK.Jacobs-Bey — March 6, 2015 @ 9:43 am

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