Defining Freedom | Facing History & Ourselves
A black and white image of African American schoolchildren in Liberty County, circa 1890.

Defining Freedom

Students examine how freed people in the United States sought to define freedom after Emancipation.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Racism


About This Lesson

While the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States, it did not define what freedom for formerly enslaved Americans would actually mean. The debate over the meaning of freedom for freedpeople is one of the primary conflicts in the history of the Reconstruction era. Centered on Defining Freedom, Part Two of Facing History’s video series about Reconstruction, and enhanced with readings and activities, this lesson will help to illuminate the choices and aspirations of freedpeople and the ways in which the government defined and sought to protect freedpeople’s newly acquired rights. Students will consider the concept of freedom, what it means to be free, and what role freedom plays in their own lives. They will also begin to reflect on the question of whether or not someone who is excluded from full and equal membership in society is truly free.

This lesson is part of Facing History’s work on the Reconstruction era and part of a series of lessons focused on our Reconstruction videos. Use this lesson toward the beginning of a Reconstruction unit to engage students in a discussion about the meaning of freedom and how freedpeople sought to define freedom after Emancipation. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lesson 3 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for more resources and background information about the ways that freedpeople and the federal government sought to define the meaning of freedom after Emancipation.

What does it mean to be free? 

  • In the wake of the Civil War, freedpeople aspired to be seen as full and equal citizens, and they defined freedom in myriad ways, including the right to own land, the right to move freely, and the right to independence and self-determination. 
  • The Thirteenth Amendment left many questions about freedom unanswered. As a result, the definition of freedom, and the power of the federal government to enforce it, became a central issue of Reconstruction.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 video
  • 1 extension activity

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Lesson Plans


In the video that students will watch in this lesson, historian Tim McCarthy points out that throughout history, all people have desired to be free. The concept of freedom is at the heart of the conflicts and debates in the United States after the end of the Civil War and the ending of slavery. Before watching the video to learn about the ways that many Americans sought to define freedom in the 1860s, ask students to pause and reflect on what freedom means to them.

Ask students to write a short reflection in response to the following questions:

  1. What does it mean to be free?  What can free people do that people who are not free cannot?
  2. What does freedom look like in your life? What gets in the way of your freedom?

The Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy provides a simple and effective way to structure this reflection and gives students the opportunity to share their thinking.

After students share ideas from their reflections, create a class concept map for the term freedom by writing on a piece of chart paper or the board.

If your students have not previously read and analyzed the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, and the Thirteenth Amendment, approved by Congress in January 1865 (and ratified by the states the following December), it will be important to briefly review both before watching Defining Freedom.

As the class reads the excerpts below, ask them to answer the following questions:

  1. What words and phrases does each use to address the status of those who were enslaved in the United States before 1863?  
  2. What questions are left unanswered?  
  3. Whose responsibility is it to answer those questions?

Excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

The Thirteenth Amendment:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

In the video that students will watch in the next step, historian Eric Foner points out that the Thirteenth Amendment does not use the word freedom. He then names two questions that were at the core of the debates and conflicts during the Reconstruction era: “What is freedom anyway? What does it mean to be a free person?” Wrap up your discussion about the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment by sharing these two questions with students.

  1. Show the video Defining Freedom. Before showing the video, share these questions with students to guide their note-taking:
    1. Who helped to bring about Emancipation? What did they do to bring it about?
    2. Who participated in the debate over the meaning of freedom? What role did African Americans play? What role did lawmakers play (both federally and in the states)?
    3. What were freedpeople able to do immediately after Emancipation?
    4. What aspirations did freedpeople express for the rights they should enjoy?
    5. What obstacles remained in the way of achieving their aspirations?
    6. What questions remained about the status of freedpeople?

After watching the video, lead a class discussion centered around the following questions:

  • Who was responsible for Emancipation?  
  • What did freedom mean during Reconstruction?

Extension Activities

Build on this discussion by having students analyze primary sources to look more deeply at the realities and aspirations of freedpeople within the first few years of Emancipation. Each of the following documents provides evidence about the actions and choices of freedpeople shortly after Emancipation as well as the variety of ways they sought to define their newly won freedom:

Materials and Downloads

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