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April 26, 2017
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April 27, 2017

What Does It Mean To Be Free?


This Inquiry Kit is designed to work with the state’s social studies frameworks that call for using evidence to learn about the past. It works with Where I Live: Connecticut’s story about Venture Smith. It presents an opportunity for students to think about slavery in Connecticut, and what that experience was like, and then to think about their own freedom (or lack thereof), and what value they place on freedom. It can be used as part of a civics discussion–about how society operates because of rules and laws but that there are limits that safeguard our freedom. Those principals and safeguards were important to our country’s founding–and yet slavery, which denied freedom and humanity to some people, was part of our country and state’s founding, too.

Historical Background

Venture Smith was from West Africa. He was captured as a young boy, enslaved, and brought to the American colonies. After spending many years working to buy his freedom and that of his family, Venture became a successful landowner and businessman. This was not without its challenges, however his story illustrates an important arc. He begins and ends his life a free person. His published memoir from 1798 provides a wonderful primary source. We’ve provided his words side by side with a version for young readers.

Compelling Question: What does freedom mean in societies?

Supporting Question:  What can we learn about freedom from the life of Venture Smith?

Setting the Stage: Read “Slavery in Connecticut: Venture Smith’s Remarkable Life”

Inquiry Activity:

  1. Research the definition of “Freedom.” Explore the freedoms we value in the United States: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom from bondage and other human rights, and others you may identify.
  2. In small groups, closely read the excerpts of Venture Smith’s memoir. Answer these questions:

Source #1*  Excerpts from A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself, New-London, [CT]: Printed by C. Holt, at The Bee-office, 1798.
* This PDF includes the remainder of the inquiry in a printable PDF.

Excerpt 1: When Venture was a young boy

  1. How does the man who wrote down Venture’s story describe him? Look for clues in the text about what he compares Venture to.
  2. What does that tell you about what it was like to be enslaved?
  3. What does he hope the reader will feel after reading Venture’s story?
  4. What kind of work did Venture do when he was a young boy?
  5. How does he describe his behavior?
  6. Was his behavior punished or rewarded?

Excerpt 2: When Venture was a young man

  1. How did Venture plan to get his freedom?

Excerpt 3: When Venture was an old man

  1. Do you think Venture had a hard life or an easy life?
  2. What was he most proud of?

Communicating Conclusions

Based on your reading and thinking about what freedom means, create a poster, Google slide show, song, or poem about Venture Smith. Include what freedom means to you.

More about Slavery & Freedom:

Read about The Amistad Captives and their fight for freedom.

Additional Resources for Teachers:

“Life & Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa” by Gene Leach https://ctexplored.org/life-and-adventures-of-venture-a-native-of-africa/

“Venture Smith, from Slavery to Freedom” by John Wood Sweet, African American Connecticut Explored (Wesleyan University Press, 2014)

“Connecticut’s Response to the Emancipation Proclamation” by Matthew Warshauer https://ctexplored.org/connecticuts-response-to-the-emancipation-proclamation/

Additional stories in African American Connecticut Explored, Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

Places to Visit:

http://www.ctfreedomtrail.org/ The Connecticut Freedom Trail documents and designates sites that embody the struggle toward freedom and human dignity, celebrate the accomplishments of the state’s African American community and promote heritage tourism. As of fall 2010, there were more than 130 sites in more than 50 towns.

Venture Smith’s gravesite is located at First Church Cemetery, 489 Town Street, East Haddam, CT 06423.