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Paths to Freedom: African Americans and the Revolutionary War

90 min

Guiding Questions:

  • How did African Americans participate in the Revolutionary War?
  • How did their actions reflect a desire to enjoy their natural rights?


  • Students will be able to connect actions taken by African Americans during the Revolutionary War to an understanding of natural rights of equality and justice.
  • Students will summarize the main ideas of historic texts.
  • Students will create an argument supported by evidence from primary sources.

  • Execrations
  • Standard
  • Forfeiture
  • Rebel
  • Rebel Standard
  • Valet
  • Mulatto
  • Victuals [food] and clothes he has been accustomed to receive
  • Chuses
  • Aforesaid
  • Emancipated
  • Bondage
  • Lord Cornwallis
  • Marquiss Lafayette
  • Inclosures
  • Annexed
  • Intreats
  • Execrations
  • Standard
  • Forfeiture
  • Rebel

Facilitation Notes:

  • Glossary terms for this lesson are provided on a separate handout. The terms are also defined on each source prior to the historical context or introduction for each source.
  • Some components of this lesson contain terminology that is no longer used because the terms are recognized to be offensive or derogatory. These terms have been retained in their original usage in order to present them accurately in their historical context for student learning, including understanding why these are not acceptable today.


  • Optional: Have students read the background essay and highlight main ideas. Have students summarize or “shrink the text” of the essay in 1-2 sentences.
  • Optional: Have students read through the background slide presentation (PPTX download). The background slides present the main ideas of the background essay in abbreviated form. Have students summarize or “shrink the text” of the slides in one to two sentences.


Transition: Today, we will consider the perspective of African Americans at the time of the Revolutionary War. After the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the text of the document was published in newspapers across the colonies and in many places read aloud to large gatherings.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.–

Talk of the document’s ideas — natural rights of equality, liberty, applying to all men — would echo throughout the colonies. African Americans would hear these discussions about natural rights: what might they do about it? How could the ideas of natural rights shape individual actions and decisions?

Scaffolding note: Write questions out for students to discuss with a partner or to answer in writing individually. Encourage students to justify their thoughts (“What makes you say that? Why do you think that?”).  Provide students with sentence stems as additional support is needed:

  • “I don’t understand why…”
  • “I would think ________ because…”
  • “I would question______ because…”
  • “I would feel______ because…”


Transition: We will be looking at primary sources to form answers to the guiding questions: How did enslaved and free African Americans participate in the Revolutionary War? How do their actions reflect a desire to enjoy their natural rights?

Distribute the student document organizer.

Scaffolding notes:

Assess and Reflect

Distribute Assess and Reflect handout. Allow students to choose the option they wish to work on or select the option that best fits your students’ needs.

  • Write a thesis statement that answers the guiding questions:
    • How did African Americans participate in the Revolutionary War?
    • How did their actions reflect a desire to enjoy their natural rights?
  • Write an essay that answers the guiding questions with support from the documents and your knowledge of the time period to support your thesis.
  • Create your own depiction of African Americans during the Revolutionary War. Consider a perspective not seen in the documents in this lesson.
  • Create a podcast or photo story about the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. Share it with someone outside of the classroom. What were they surprised to learn? What questions did this recording raise for the audience?


Student Handouts

Related Resources