Paths to Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Power of the President
By Ben Kunkel
Experience "Paths to Freedom"
Photos courtesy of the Decatur House, the White House Historical Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
ince January 2008, Paths to Freedom has been an ambitious project designed to provide students with a unique and thought-provoking perspective on American history by actively engaging them in the learning process. Combining the resources of Decatur House on Lafayette Square and the White House Historical Association, this free, standards-based program presents an innovative approach to teaching such diverse topics as the Civil War, slavery and the pursuit of freedom, acting techniques, and historic preservation.
While participating in a costumed reenactment within the nineteenth-century interiors of Decatur House on Lafayette Square, students recreate the events surrounding the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Each student researches and acts the part of an historic character from the 1860's and traces President Abraham Lincoln's steps as he considered emancipation and its alternatives. Students take on the role of President Lincoln, his family, members of his Cabinet, foreign diplomats, Union officers, and other figures from Washington society in the Civil War era. In doing so, they better understand the complexity and difficulty of what Lincoln was trying to accomplish and its impact on a divided country.
Teachers and students are given a variety of materials to prepare them for their field trip to Decatur House before they arrive. Teachers receive a Resource Packet including a pre-visit lesson plan, a teacher's version of the script, the cast list, suggested activities, and various other resources. The students receive biographical information about their character in addition to their lines in the play so that they can practice in school and at home before the field trip.
Students are given many tools with which to learn when they arrive at Decatur House. In addition to the authentic custom-made costumes and a script based on primary documentation, staff educators engage the students with a review of their characters' biographies and lead a discussion of the many ways in which slaves tried to attain their freedom. A SMART board presentation focuses on Civil War content and the political stances of historic figures towards the Emancipation Proclamation and serves to clarify some of the difficult points surrounding Lincoln's ultimate decision. Additionally, students complete a journal about their character, participate in group discussion, and tour the original Decatur House kitchen where slaves actually worked. In conclusion to the program, each class receives a DVD of their filmed production.
The Paths to Freedom program provides excellent opportunities for students to learn about the Civil War, slavery, and historic preservation. It is an immensely rewarding educational opportunity for everyone involved and has proved to be very successful in its first two years. Several classes have participated two years in a row and are eager to sign up again. Feedback from the program has been remarkable among teachers, parents, and students who have expressed enjoying and learning from their experience.
Paths to Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Power of the President is offered year round for Grades 4-6 on Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Thursdays from 9:00AM-2:00PM. It is a free, standards-based program that typically lasts approximately three hours. Learn more and register online at www.whitehousehistory.org/outreach.
Ben Kunkel is the education program manager for the Decatur House, a National Trust Historic Site.
Decatur House (1818), an historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is one of three residences remaining the country designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the Father of American Architecture. Built in the neoclassical style for naval hero Stephen Decatur, the home's prominent location on Lafayette Square across from the White House made it one of the capital's most desirable addresses, including when it served as the unofficial residence of the Secretary of State. The property also contains a rare urban slave quarters, the only lasting physical evidence that African Americans were held in bondage in sight of the Executive Mansion. Today, visitors can see a restoration in progress and hear the compelling stories of this unique place, from elite socializing to a fatal duel, to an enslaved woman's campaign for freedom.
The White House Historical Association is a charitable nonprofit institution whose purpose is to enhance the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion. All proceeds from its trusts and the sale of Association products are used to fund the acquisition of historic furnishings and art work for the permanent White House collection, to assist in the preservation of public rooms, and to further its educational mission. The Association also sponsors lectures, exhibits, and other outreach programs. Thousands of schools, universities, and libraries have received free educational materials about the White House; and traveling exhibits and videos are circulated to the presidential libraries and museums.
Does your school matter? Take a class picture in front of your older or historic school building and share it with the world through the National Trust's This Place Matters campaign. No camera? No problem! Plant a flag on our interactive map.