Learning History with American Girl Addy Part 1: Plantation Work

Addy’s story is part of one of the saddest chapters in American history. She grew up as a slave in North Carolina before and during the Civil War. While the atrocities and hardships of slavery are unimaginable to most of us, we can get a little insight into what life was like for African American slaves by learning about how they worked.

Addy’s Work

Addy grew up on a plantation in North Carolina that grew tobacco. Plantations were some of the hardest places for slaves to live because the work required was so grueling. Most adult slaves on a tobacco plantation would have worked from the time the sun was up until the sun went down. From the time she was young, Addy had jobs like carrying heavy buckets of water to the slaves in the fields and picking worms from the leaves of the tobacco plants. In Meet Addy, there is a story about how Addy was distracted and missed some of the worms. The overseer of the slaves punished her by making her eat the worms she had missed. This actually was in a common punishment used on tobacco plantations. If a slave missed a worm while charged with the task of worming, an overseer would often force the slave to bite the worm in half. This is pretty horrifying to think about, but even more so when you see what these worms actually looked like.

This is a horn worm, the kind of worm that would infest tobacco plants. As you can see, they are not small. They can get even bigger than the one in the picture. Slaves had to pick these from the tobacco leaves and kill them. Slaves usually didn’t have shoes, so that meant smashing the worms in their hands or stomping on them with their bare feet. Can you imagine that? I got some horn worms like these to show my class when we were learning about Addy. I let them hold the worms if they wanted and asked them to think about what it would be like to have to smash them with their bare hands and feet, or to have them stuffed in their mouth. No wonder poor Addy was so upset when that happened to her in Meet Addy.

*Note: If you get horn worms to teach about slavery, make sure you know a reptile that you can feed them to when you are done. Don’t release them into your yard – they are very damaging to plants.

The plantations in the United States that had slaves when Addy was a girl were in the southern states. Most of those plantations grew cotton, but some grew tobacco, and a few grew sugar and rice. We made a map of the slave states and glued cotton, sugar, and rice in the places where those crops were grown. We colored the tobacco plantations brown.

Cotton was a very profitable crop during the time that Addy was a child because of new inventions that had made cotton easier to spin and make into cloth, like the cotton gin and the Spinning Jenny.

Men, women, and children all worked in the cotton fields. A slave was usually required to pick between 100 and 300 pounds of cotton in a single day. To put this in perspective, this is one pound of cotton:

Picking Cotton

Although Addy didn’t pick cotton since she lived on a tobacco plantation, we did an activity to get some insight into what this might have been like. I spread cotton balls all over the lawn. I gave the children 5 minutes to gather as much cotton as they could. I told the children to keep in mind that picking actual cotton was much harder – the plants had sharp bristles, and the cotton was harvested in the summer – often in 110 degree heat. After 5 minutes we weighed the cotton and talked about how much more they would have had to pick and what they thought about that. Obviously, this was nothing like what enslaved people really experienced in the cotton fields, but the children remarked on how hard their five minutes were and how much it hurt their backs, so I do think it helped them imagine how grueling that work was.

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