A story untold: the history of American slavery

In 2017 the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, conducted an investigation into how the history of slavery is taught in high schools. The investigation included surveys of more than 1,000 high school seniors, an examination of state standards, American history textbooks and questionnaires completed by more than 1,700 social science teachers.

SPLC researchers concluded that “Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and — as a result — students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America.”

Test your knowledge about the history of slavery in the U.S. by way of this 10-question quiz. Questions 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 were prepared by SPLC researchers. I provided the remaining four questions.


1. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, in how many of the 13 colonies was slavery legal?

A. 7

B. 9

C. 11

D. 13

2. People enslaved by colonists in North America included all of the following except:

A. Native Americans

B. Muslims

C. Irish

D. West Africans

3. This former slave and abolitionist told John Brown that his planned 1859 raid on a U.S. armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which Brown believed would spark a slave rebellion throughout the South, was certain to fail and that he would walk into a “perfect steel-trap.”

A. Frederick Douglass

B. Sojourner Truth

C. Nat Turner

D. Harriet Tubman

4. Why did the South secede from the Union?

A. To preserve slavery

B. To protest taxes on imported goods

C. To avoid rapid industrialization

D. To preserve states’ rights

5. Which formally ended slavery in the United States?

A. The Civil Rights Act of 1968

B. The treaty ending the Civil War

C. The Emancipation Proclamation

D. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

6. What was the Middle Passage?

A. Another name for the “Triangular Trade.”

B. A type of ship built specifically to transport human beings.

C. A system of roads in West Africa leading to the coast.

D. The journey across the Atlantic of Africans stolen for the slave trade.

7. How many of the first 18 presidents owned enslaved people at some point in their lives?

A. None

B. 6

C. 12

D. 3

8. At the peak of the slave trade, how many Africans were transported across the ocean in a single decade?

A. 80,000

B. 520,000

C. 260,000

D. 860,000

9. The 11 states that seceded from the Union had a combined population of approximately 9 million. How many were slaves?

A. 1.5 million

B. 3.5 million

C. 5.5 million

D. 7.5 million

10. In 1860, how much did a “prime male field hand” sell for at New Orleans slave auctions?

A. $200

B. $700

C. $1,200

D. $1,800


1. D. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies

2. C. It’s a myth that Irish people were enslaved. Many endured horrible conditions of indentured servitude, but none were subject to lifelong, hereditary slavery.

3. A. Brown and Douglass met in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, two months prior to Brown’s failed attempt to capture the Harper’s Ferry armory. Brown tried to convince Douglass to join his raiding party, with Douglass steadfastly refusing to be part of an endeavor that “would array the whole country against us.”

4. A. Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded. For example, the Mississippi Declaration of Secession stated: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the products, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. … These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

5. D. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, formally ended slavery. Issued on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation stated that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The proclamation exempted the slaves in the border states that remained in the Union as well as those areas in Confederate states controlled by the Union Army on the grounds these areas were not in rebellion against the United States.

6. D. The Middle Passage was the “middle” leg of the triangular trade where Europeans ships sailed to Africa with finished goods, traded for abducted Africans bound for slavery, and brought them across the Atlantic to the Americas, where they sold them for raw materials like sugar.

7. C. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk and Taylor owned slaves while in office. Van Buren, Harrison, Johnson and Grant owned slaves, but not as president.

8. D. More than 860,000 Africans were taken and transported across the ocean in a single decade.

9. B. 3.5 million. The border states that remained in the Union (Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware) had approximately 500,000 slaves.

10. D. $1,800, or approximately $53,000 today, adjusted for inflation. This prohibitive cost explains in large measure why almost half of all slave-holding families in the South (an estimated one in three families owned slaves) had fewer than five people in bondage.

One of the authors of the SPLC report, Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries of Ohio State University, states that “Slavery is hard history. It’s hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It’s hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It’s hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it’s hard to learn about those who abided it. We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.”

In the current political, social and cultural climate, the hard job of teaching about slavery is even more difficult. However, this history must be taught if students are to have an accurate understanding of the past, how the past shaped the present, and how to ultimately realize the truths proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


Deyle, S. (2006) “The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life,” Oxford University Press: New York

McPherson, J. (1988) “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” Oxford University Press: New York

“How Much Do You Know About American Slavery?” (2018) Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org

“Selected Statistics on Slavery in the United States” (accessed 2018) Civil War Causes, www.civilwarcauses.org

“Teaching Hard History” (2018) from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an excellent source of material on teaching about slavery for teachers: https://www.tolerance.org/frameworks/teaching-hard-history/american-slavery.