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Letters From a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs

Atheneum, 2007. Jacket design and photo-illustration by Krista Vossen. Jacket photograph (bottom) courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California).

Like his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before him, Joseph Jacobs was born into slavery. Now he lives with his great-grandmother and sister in North Carolina, but he has not seen his mother for more than seven years.

Unbeknownst to Joseph, his mother, Harriet, has been hiding from her owner in the attic of the house that Joseph lives in. But when Harriet’s hiding place is in danger of being revealed, she is forced to flee north to safety only moments after being reunited with her family.

In this companion novel to Letters from a Slave Girl, Joseph’s stirring quest for freedom and identity is told through letters imagined by the author.  Based on the real-life stories of Harriet and Joseph Jacobs, Letters from a Slave Boy is set against the backdrop of some of the most exciting and turbulent times in American history.

What one teen is saying about Letters from a Slave Boy:

“This book is based on the real life stories about a slave boy named Joseph Jacobs. I not only enjoyed reading about his life, but I also learned a lot of history. The time is set between the years 1839-1860. Joseph talkes about the troubles that occur for his race, and the fright of getting caught for being a run-away slave. I would definitly recommend this book to anyone. You will learn many things and relate to the character from start to finish. Before I read this book I had never heard of Joseph Jacobs before. This book has definitely broadened my perspective on slavery and many other historical events.”

Teens Talk About Books

Read a review of this title

activity  GO FIGURE

(answers at bottom of page—no cheating!)

Joseph’s gross pay for three years on the Ivy Ann whaler was $217.96, or 1/188 of the ship’s total profit. Use Joseph’s gross pay to figure the gross profit for the owner of the Ivy Ann.

After the agent subtracted expenses, Joseph’s net pay was $57.96. Joseph worked on the Ivy Ann for thirty-three months. What was his monthly net pay?


(This activity requires computer skills. Don't be shy. Ask for help if you need it.)

  • Open a blank document in a word processing program on your computer.
  • Copy and paste the United States map below into the blank document. Print the page.
  • After reading Letters from a Slave Boy, label the towns, cities, and states where Joseph lived in the United States. The first one is done for you.
  • Label the large oceans that are east and west of the United States. 
  • Draw a line that points toward Australia, which is off the map.
  • Hint: The map should identify a total of one town, two cities, three states, two oceans, and one continent.
  • Beginning with Edenton, NC, draw lines that connect the places where Joseph lived. 


  • At the bottom of the map or on the back, list the states you have labeled.
  • For each state, briefly explain the slavery law or laws that frightened Joseph.  Refer to Letters from a Slave Boy as often as needed.
  • Provide a date for each law.  This can be the year in which state legislators passed the law.  Or you can use any year in which the law was in effect.  
  • Think of a title that describes your map.  Add the title at the top. 
  • You’ve worked hard.  Now it’s show-off time.  Explain your map to an audience of friends, teachers, or family. 

  • In the painting below, an enslaved African American plays a gourd banjo. This stringed instrument is similar to ones played in Africa. You could even say that it is the great-great granddaddy of banjos played in America today. Find a picture of a modern banjo and compare the two instruments. List the ways in which they are alike.
  • What other African instrument can you see in the picture?

The Old Plantation, artist unknown
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia

  • Joseph learns a tune called Roustabout. This old-time African-American song has different names and various lyrics, depending on who plays it. 

Click to hear a 30-second version by Dink Roberts, an African-American banjo player from North Carolina. 

You can hear the entire song on Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. The CD is available from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.


As Joseph learned in Boston, the popularity of African-American banjo tunes led to the rise of racist minstrel shows. Professor Eric Lott from the University of Virginia explains the history of minstrelsy in “Black Face Minstrelsy: Past and Present.”  Before reading the text, review the meaning and pronunciation of:


For a video of Professor Lott’s talk, click here and scroll down to his photo.  Then click on the box underneath labeled “video.” (Use the slider to skip the 60-second introduction.)

After hearing and/or watching the talk, answer these questions:

  • Why did low-paid white workers call themselves “wage slaves”?
  • Why were minstrel shows popular with white workers?
  • Who were the Lords of the Loom?
  • Who were the Lords of the Lash?


Read two books that Professor Lott mentioned in his talk.

Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in American Culture by Robert Toll, 1974.
Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Dubois, 1935.


(pronounced NEE suh nahn)

When Joseph is in California he meets a young Nisenan woman.  Click here to learn more about the Nisenan, a group of Native Americans almost destroyed by the California gold rush.

Click here to see an early photograph of a Nisenan man.


Answers to Go Figure: