Lesson Plan: Overview

From Slave to Entrepreneur:

The Life and Times of William Ellison

Grade Level: 8th
Ad by William Ellison in Sumter Banner, 1848

Academic Standards

Standard 8-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Civil War—its causes and effects and the major events that occurred during that time.

8-3.1 Explain the importance of agriculture in antebellum South Carolina, including plantation life, slavery, and the impact of the cotton gin. (H, G, E)

8-3.6 Compare the effects of the Civil War on daily life in South Carolina, including the experiences of plantation owners, women, Confederate and Union soldiers, African Americans, and children. (H, E)


Social Studies Literacy Elements

A. Distinguish between past, present, and future time

B. Establish chronological order in constructing one’s own historical narratives

E. Explain change and continuity over time

K. Use texts, photographs, and documents to observe and interpret social studies trends and relationships

O.  Consider multiple perspectives of documents and stories

Historical Background Notes

The cotton gin, a technological advancement of the textile industry, increased the production of cotton to a much larger scale than ever before.   Prior to the American Revolution, the difficulties involved with removal of the sticky seeds from inside the cotton ball, hindered the production of cotton.   In addition, the process to remove the seeds was not fast enough to make the production of cotton profitable. However, the introduction of the saw gin at the end of the 18th century changed all of this.  Patented in 1793, the saw gin made processing cotton easier, faster, and cheaper.  In a day, one person was able to clean the seeds from fifty pounds of green-seed cotton.  In just a short time, cotton became the most important cash crop in the South.  Between 1790 and 1800, cotton exports from South Carolina increased from 9,840 pounds to more than 6,000,000 pounds (Johnson and Roark 1984, 10). The increase in cotton production led to increased demands for cotton gins.  Without a doubt, Whitney’s invention significantly changed the life of a young black slave, named April Ellison.  Little did April know that he would have the opportunity for an education, freedom, and eventually wealth.

April Ellison, born in 1790 to black slave parents, was owned by William Ellison, a white slave owner.  Often children of slaves were named for the month in which they were born.  Around 1802 Ellison apprenticed April to William McCreight, a gin maker in Winnsboro, South Carolina, to be trained as a cotton gin builder and repairer.  Very little is known about April’s life beyond his apprenticeship, except in 1811, he had a daughter by Matilda, a sixteen year old slave woman (Johnson and Roark 1984, 14).

April worked in McCreight’s gin shop until 1816 learning how to be a blacksmith, a machinist, and a carpenter, skills required of a gin maker.  In addition to learning to be a master gin builder during his apprenticeship with McCreight, April learned to read, write, cipher, and do bookkeeping. Indeed, McCreight had provided April with all the skills, both intellectual and mechanical, necessary for independent success as a gin maker (Johnson and Roark 1984, 11-13). April’s long term apprenticeship in gin making prepared him for freedom.  Not only did he become a master gin builder, but also he learned how to get along with the white planters.  If April aspired to be successful as a free black gin maker, he had to understand the ways of whites. 

On June 8, 1816, William Ellison appeared before a Fairfield District magistrate, with five local freeholders, to gain permission to free April, now 26 years of age.  For the first time in his life, April no longer belonged to another man and could decide for himself where he would live and work.  In 1817, upon obtaining his freedom, William moved to Stateburg, Sumter County, South Carolina and started making and repairing cotton gins.

By the time William was in his late twenties, he was in business for himself as a master cotton gin builder and repairer.  Ellison became a successful businessman and mechanic.  A bill to Judge Waite dated October 6, 1817 exemplified that Ellison was truly skilled at his work.  Ellison completely dissembled, rebuilt, and reassembled Waite’s cotton gin.  It probably took him twelve days to complete this job (Thomas Waites Papers, see Bill from Ellison to Waites). By 1819, William had bought two male slaves to work in his shop. In 1820, April legally changed his name to William Ellison, Jr., the name of his former owner (Johnson and Roark 1984, 13-16).  As a result of the high price and increased production of cotton, by 1840 William had twelve slaves working in his shop.  On December 13, 1848, Ellison placed an advertisement in the Sumter Banner, a newspaper, advertising his business of making and repairing gins (go to Improved Cotton Gins, Sumter Banner) .

According to the 1850 U.S. Census- Slave Schedule of Sumter County, South Carolina, William Ellison was listed as a black man with thirty-seven slaves, twenty-seven males and ten females. In a letter to his son Henry, dated March 26, 1857, Ellison wrote giving him instructions on managing several of the gin shop customer accounts.  One can conclude that business was going so well, that William’s son help was needed to keep up with the accounting (Ellison’s papers).

 By 1860 William owned, not only his gin shop, but also a large cotton plantation and more than 60 slaves (Lemelson Center, 2008, see “Student Activity Packet, Activity #2: Fixing a Gin: Math and History at Your Desk”). He was South Carolina’s largest black slave owner.  In the entire state, only five percent of the people owned as much land as William (Ellison Family Graveyard, 2009). It was unusual, but not impossible, for former slaves to own slaves.  

When war broke out in 1861, William became a very devout supporter of the Confederacy. William turned his plantation over from being a cotton cash crop to farming foodstuff for the Confederacy when his grandson joined a Confederate Artillery Unit.  After Ellison’s death on December 5, 1861, per his wishes, his family actively supported the Confederacy throughout the war. The Ellison family produced foodstuff for the Confederate Army, contributed large amounts of money, paid $5000 in taxes, and invested a good portion of their fortune into Confederate Bonds, worthless at the end of the war (Lemelson Center, 2008, see “Student Activity Packet, Activity #2: Fixing a Gin: Math and History at Your Desk”).  After the war, the Ellison family had lost their money and returned to the poverty the Ellison patriarch knew in his youth.

Undoubtedly, the greatest accomplishment of William Ellison was his transitioning from a slave to an entrepreneur.  With his technological and business skills, William was able to earn his freedom and become a successful entrepreneur (Lemelson Center, 2008, , see “Student Activity Packet, Activity #2: Fixing a Gin: Math and History at Your Desk”).  From reading his papers, reviewing Census Reports, other primary sources, and secondary sources both the students and I learned a great deal about the life and times of William Ellison. 


Primary Sources

Improved Cotton Gins, Sumter Banner, 13 December 1848. Newspapers on Microfilm, Published Materials Division. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

William Ellison to Henry Ellison, 26 March 1857. Ellison Family Papers, 1845-1870. Manuscripts Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

Bill from Ellison to Waites, Thomas Waites Papers, 1733- 1838. Manuscripts Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina

1850 U.S. Census- Slave Schedule. Available from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Microfilm collection. Columbia, South Carolina. Accessed 17 February 2009.

Secondary Sources

Ellison Family Graveyard.  Available from the Internet, Palmetto State Roots Web Sites, Accessed 20 January 2009.

“Student Activity Packet, Activity #2: Fixing a Gin: Math and History at Your Desk”. The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Available from the Internet,  National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed 24 July 2008.

Johnson, Michael P.  and James L. Roark. Black masters: a free family of color in the old South. New York: Norton, 1984.

Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners : Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790- 1860. Jefferson: McFarland, 1985.


Lesson Plans

  1. Explain standard and indicator to be covered in this lesson
  2. Distribute handout on the Life and Times of William Ellison (See the Historical Background Notes section)
  3. Read the information to the class
    • Re-read in chunks
    • Work with students to identify important dates in Ellison’s life
  4. From the identified dates create a timeline on the Life and Times of William Ellison, (go to Life and Times of William Ellison Timeline)
  5. Introduce each primary source (Complete process for each)
    • Project the image on the screen
    • Discuss the obvious observations
    • Do a more thorough analysis of the source
    • Pair students to complete Primary Source Analysis Worksheet (See the Examples of Students Work section)

Teacher Reflections

Teaching exceptional students with extensive deficiencies in reading and writing skills is a daily and on-going challenge to find ways to spark my students’ interest and desire to learn. With reading ability levels ranging from primer to low third grade, 95% of classroom instruction is teacher led.  My students’ inability to use reasoning skills and with comprehension levels, averaging lower third, contribute increased frustration for both my students and me.  

Paul, the master scholar, taught the need to teach content first, and then introduce the primary source.  It was important that my students understood the content and/or background before they could attempt to understand the primary source documents. Collaboration with South Caroliniana Library provided me with hands on experiences to examine actual documents from our state’s history.           

Since being introduced to using primary sources to teach history, I have tried to hook my students into seeing the value of using this important tool. The primary source documents were too difficult for my exceptional students to read.  The documents were written in cursive, which my students could not read.  As a result, I read the transcripts to my students because they were frustrated with trying to read and/or understand how the document was written.   For right now, I have stopped using grade level history primary sources, and will begin using primary sources that are more in tune with my students’ interest and generation.  We are looking at letters, birth certificates, photographs, etc. of family members.  I know that at some point, I will return to using primary sources more relevant to the standards and indicators for history.  I believe analyzing primary sources is a skill that will benefit my students.  My plan is to start more integration of primary sources with my sixth graders, and to use any opportunity possible with my current 7th and 8th grade students.

In reviewing the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, I realize now that my students were confused with the both the document and its wording.  I’m working to create a modified version of the document analysis sheet on my student’s instructional level.   In the future, I will need to teach the various verbs contained in the document.  Even though my students were mot successful in analyzing the primary sources, I believe that it is important to expose them.

Another strategy that I learned was to show how three words connected to make a bigger concept.  When I first started to use this method, my students looked at me as if I were crazy.  But I took a step back, and helped them to create a concept map on a very short passage.  As their skills improved, I gave them the words and they had to show (graphic organizer), then write how they were connected.  My students display difficulty remembering what was learned from the previous day.  But once I started reviewing and modeling a couple of big concepts, they were able to complete the task.  This method of content instruction did increase my students’ knowledge of history. Having the students to select their three words is an on-going work in progress.  I am so positive that they will learn this strategy that I will continue to use it.  Hopefully, the content level of my studies will improve.  

My students better understand the concept and with teacher led instruction can complete assignments.  The disabilities of the students in my class greatly influence their progress and how my lessons are structured.  Exposure and hands-on-practice with more strategies to be used with exceptional needs students would greatly improve my performance as a special needs educator.  More hands on materials, resources and primary sources geared to below grade level ability would have been more helpful for me. It took 3 days to teach this lesson to my students.  My 73 minute block for social studies is divided into instructing three different grade levels with their own standards and indicators.  This lesson would have been more effective, if  I could have followed through with the lesson, and not restart every time.  With the population that I teach short and to the point is more productive.

I learned a great deal about Ellison doing my research.  It has encouraged me to develop a unit where the students and I work together to uncover primary sources that tell the life and times of another person.  Personally and professionally, I have grown from participating in the grant and using the information and strategies in my classroom.   Maybe, some of the approaches to learning are above my students’ ability levels, I simply refuse to give up on them.  I will keep on trying until I can reach them.  I have high expectations for all of my students.   

Student Assessment

Completion of timeline - Individual (Assessed with a Timeline Rubric)

Primary Source Analysis Worksheets – Group (Each completed with 80% accuracy, (See Written Document Analysis Worksheet (blank) and Advertisement Analysis Worksheet (blank)

Examples of Students Work

Written Document Analysis Worksheet (Primary Source)

Advertisement Analysis Worksheet (Primary Source)

Life and Times of William Ellison Timeline


Carrie B. Hoffler
Columbia, South Carolina