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Cotton is King

Slave traders began to buy enslaved people in Maryland's eastern shore to take down to the Deep South. Harriet Tubman witnessed her older sisters being dragged away in chains, a memory that she would carry for the rest of her life. This module examines the economic and political importance of cotton production and the grueling impact it had on enslaved people. Students will analyze primary sources from the era, and consider discussion prompts for more dialogue and deeper reflection.

Essential Question: How did the rapid growth of the cotton industry impact enslaved people in Maryland and their families?

Thinking Questions:

  1. Why did so many enslavers in border states like Maryland and Delaware sell their enslaved laborers to the Deep South?
  2. Why were young, enslaved women between the ages of 16 and 24 the most valuable at sale?
  3. Do you think that the increase in demand for enslaved labor in the South influenced Harriet Tubman to escape? Why or why not?
  4. How did Harriet Tubman’s circumstances influence her decisions and actions?

Analyze the song sheet, King Cotton. Baltimore, Jan. 1, 1862.

  • What do you think was the composer’s purpose in creating this song?
  • What do you notice, wonder, and feel about the song lyrics?
  • Think about what you already know about this period in history. How does the song highlight the values or opinions of the time period?
  • How do the lyrics support or contradict your current understanding of 19th-century America?
  • How do you think the public reacted to this song?

Examine the printed text, The cotton question.

  • What was the purpose of this text?
  • Who created it?
  • What can you learn from examining this text?
  • How is the text and other information arranged on the page?
  • What does this text say about the quantity and value of cotton production in the 1800s?

Examine this photograph, View of laborers preparing cotton for gins.

  • What do you notice in this photograph? What people or objects are shown?
  • How does the photograph make you feel?
  • What can you learn from examining this image?
  • What is missing from this photograph that you wonder about?
  • Why do you think this photograph was made?