Slave Resistance
in the Antebellum South

Research Scenario


nat turner's rebellion
Nat Turner's Rebellion
Source: Library of Congress

In 1860 there were approximately 348,000 slave owners and 3,800,000 slaves in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South. WIth slaves out-numbering their owners by so many, it may be difficult for us to imagine why slaves did not overthrow the system of slavery in the South. But the conditions under which slaves lived must have made resistance seem incredibly risky and nearly impossible. Slave owners had established strict Slave Codes to limit slaves' activities, in part because they feared slave uprisings. Any attempt to resist, escape, or rebel against slavery could result in brutal punishment. Although many of these factors discouraged widespread slave resistance, some slaves did not accept their condition. They found the courage and the means to resist enslavement.

How did slaves in the antebellum South resist enslavement?

Click here to read an overview of Slave Resistance
and Revolts in America between 1600-1860.

Task and Product


henry box brown
Henry "Box" Brown
Source: Library of Congress

Suppose that you had been a slave in the antebellum South. How might you have resisted enslavement?

Each student will conduct brief research on methods of resistance used by slaves in the antebellum South. You will define and analyze examples of passive resistance and active resistance in order to identify the pros and cons of each method.

After completing your individual research, you will work with a small group in which you imagine you are slaves living on the same Southern plantation. Each slave group will hold a secret meeting to discuss and plan a resistance action. As a group you must:

  • Discuss the pros and cons of passive and active resistance.
  • Decide which method of resistance you think is most effective.
  • Plan a specific passive or active resistance action.
  • Present your resistance action plan orally to the other groups, supporting your decision and plan with details from your research.

ellen craft
Ellen Craft in disguise.
Source: Library of Congress.

The following scoring tools may be used or adapted by your teacher to evaluate your research process and your final product and presentation.

Research Process Assessments:

Final Product Assessments: 


supplicant slave

Essential Question:

How did slaves in the antebellum South resist enslavement?

Subsidiary Questions:

  • What factors and conditions discouraged slaves from attempting to resist, escape, or rebel against their condition?
  • What were some examples of passive resistance and active resistance against slavery?
  • Which method of slave resistance do you think was most effective? Why?

Gather and Sort



Use a variety of resources for gathering information
about slave resistance.

Sort your research findings using the Slave Resistance Methods and Examples chart.

  • You may print out the chart and write your notes, or save it according to your teacher's directions and word process your notes.

Avoid plagiarism by properly paraphrasing and quoting in your writing.

Cite all information sources you use for a list of Works Cited. Use the citation resources below as directed by your teacher or library media specialist.

  • Use an online citation generator like Easy Bib or Citation Machine
    • To use Source Card "worksheets," print out blank templates from the online citation website as needed for each source you use; fill these out on paper as you do your research, and then type all of your citations into the citation generator after your research is completed.
  • OR, use the citation guidelines and examples below:





Analyze your own research notes ensure that you have enough information to contribute to your group's discussion of the pros and cons of passive and active resistance against slavery in the antebellum South.

Synthesize your findings by sharing information and ideas from your research notes with members of your slave group at the secret slave resistance meeting.

Evaluate your group's collective notes. Are you:

  • Ready to make a decision about whether to plan a passive or an active resistance action?
  • Able to support your decision with details from your research.?

Decide as a group to plan either a passive or an active resistance action.

Brainstorm ideas for a specific plan of action. What will your group do to resist enslavement?

  • To make this activity as authentic as possible, you will not be responsible for turning in a written plan of action (since most slaves in the antebellum South were not able to write).
  • However, one or more members of your group may make notes to organize your ideas for your oral presentation.




Share your slave resistance action plan orally with the other groups from your plantation.

  • Explain your group's choice of passive or active resistance with details from your research.
  • Remember that each group member will be assessed on his/her participation in the oral presentation of your group's plan.


After hearing the other groups' plans, which method of resistance do you now think is most effective? Support your answer with details from the oral presentations.

  • Your teacher may ask you to reflect through participation in a class discussion or in a written response (exit ticket).

Extension Activity:

Believe it or not, slavery still exists in some parts of the world. Read one of the following articles about a modern example of slavery.

Consider the circumstances of these slaves (which will be different from those of the African American slaves in the antebellum American South).
Would you recommend that these modern-day slaves pursue a passive or an active slave resistance action? Why?