After slavery ended, freed people worked to maintain their cultural traditions and create new futures for their families. Too often students only learn about African Americans as victims or heroes, but it is critically important to expose students to stories of Black Americans that encompass the full range of human experience, including the ordinary.
This lesson uses primary sources and oral histories to show the Turner family building new lives for themselves in Grafton, VT—going to school, working in jobs, creating a business—as well as expressing their cultural heritage through story, music, song, and preserving their own family history. Daisy used the art of storytelling and music to share the history of her family. This is part of a long tradition going all the way back to Africa and the role of the griot historians and storytellers.
Slavery, African-American Life in Vermont
What did it mean for African American families to build a life in freedom?
Historical Thinking Skills
Primary Source Analysis; Synthesizing Sources
Activating Prior Knowledge/Building Context
Review the Turner family’s journey from slavery to freedom; from Virginia to Vermont.
Students should review their understanding of the word “culture” as a way of living that is passed down through generations—including food, religion, language, family and gender roles, and beliefs.
Ask students to think of a family story that has been told and retold.
- When has the story been told?
- At the holidays? At bedtime?
- How has the story been passed down?
- Why has it been passed down?
- Has it ever been written down?
Investigation of Primary Sources
Discuss as a class the idea of oral traditions. Daisy used the art of storytelling to share the history of her family. Listen to Young Alec and His Red Moccasins. Why might this story have been important to the family? (It was the first time Alec realized he was different from the white children he played with; It is an example of his mother resisting the slave mistress, yet also being deeply afraid of what might happen to Alec.)
Daisy also used music to share the history of her family. This is also a deep, cultural tradition. Listen to the first part of More Stories of Plantation Life, stopping after Daisy sings “Poor Nelly Gray.” Have students read the lyrics and discuss the plights of Nelly Gray and the narrator. Why might the song have been a favorite and one to share? Daisy and her family held fundraising concerts for the Grafton, Vermont, church. They sang many family songs there and in the dance hall on their property. Show students the photograph of Sally Turner, William Early, and Alexander Turner (Alec) playing handmade instruments.
Distribute the four photographs with questions to four groups of students. Ask students to look closely and summarize what the photograph reveals about what it meant to build a new life. What could the Turners do that they could not do while enslaved? (Go to school, start a business, own land and farm, get an advanced degree and job.)
What aspects of the past and new opportunities for the future did the Turners combine to build a new life in Vermont?
Lyrics to “Poor Nellie Gray”
There’s a low, green valley, on the old Kentucky shore.
Where I’ve whiled many happy hours away,
A-sitting and a-singing by the little cottage door,
Where lived my darling Nelly Gray.
Oh! my poor Nelly Gray, they have taken you away,
And I’ll never see my darling any more;
I’m sitting by the river and I’m weeping all the day.
For you’ve gone from the old Kentucky shore.
When the moon had climbed the mountain and the stars were shining too.
Then I’d take my darling Nelly Gray,
And we’d float down the river in my little red canoe,
While my banjo sweetly I would play.
One night I went to see her, but “She’s gone!” the neighbors say.
The white man bound her with his chain;
They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away,
As she toils in the cotton and the cane.
My canoe is under water, and my banjo is unstrung;
I’m tired of living any more;
My eyes shall look downward, and my song shall be unsung
While I stay on the old Kentucky shore.
My eyes are getting blinded, and I cannot see my way.
Hark! there’s somebody knocking at the door.
Oh! I hear the angels calling, and I see my Nelly Gray.
Farewell to the old Kentucky shore.
Oh, my darling Nelly Gray, up in heaven there they say,
That they’ll never take you from me any more.
I’m a-coming-coming-coming, as the angels clear the way,
Farewell to the old Kentucky shore!