Writing Assignment 3

Paper 3: Primary documents and Davidson College’s participation in slavery

The third paper assignment asks you to apply the skills you practiced in last semester’s Annotation and Difficult Passage assignments to write an analysis of what historians call primary sources.

This kind of paper asks you to consider primary sources as “artifacts not facts,”[1] that is, as pieces of evidence that need interpretation rather than as indisputable records of the past. Primary source analysis requires that you take seriously the context in which sources were produced (e.g., time, place, authorship, audience) and look for ambiguities, tensions, and gaps that call for you to explain or theorize their meaning.

As historians analyze primary sources, they build on existing scholarship about past events, figures, ideas, and places. For this assignment, you, too, will work as a historian, in conversation with others who have reflected on Davidson College’s past, particularly its past participation in slavery. For this paper, you will join the conversation, taking account of what historical actors have done as well as what other analysts have written or said about those historical actors.

Sometimes, institutions engage in historical work, examining leaders’ past actions and reaching conclusions about future directions. In this assignment, you will select one Davidson College document and examine it in light of the College’s recent exploration of its relationship to antebellum slaveholding. In the U.S., events of the past decade have spurred activism and debate about how the nation and its citizens should reckon with the history of enslavement. Davidson College has taken up these questions as well.


Using skills you practiced in the Annotation and Difficult Passage assignments, write an analysis of one of these primary sources:

You must use the following sources in your analysis. In particular, attend to the recommendations and projected actions discussed in Green’s history and the video:

Instead of thinking of the analysis of the primary document and the engagement with the sources (video, Green, Trouillot) as two separate tasks, use the latter materials as a framework from which to analyze your primary source. How does what you’re seeing in the primary source support, extend, contradict, or add nuance to Green’s historical narrative and the story detailed in the video? What silences in your primary document does Trouillot’s chapter prompt you to notice?

An excellent primary source analysis:

  • Makes an argument arising from details in the primary source about time, place, people, and/or events depicted, rather than simply describing or summarizing its contents
  • Bases this argument on both what the primary document says and how it presents that information (the rhetorical subtext). How does the document present the past, to whom does it present it, and why?
  • Uses specific evidence from the primary source and explains how that evidence supports claims about the source’s meaning
  • Uses analysis of the primary source to engage in scholarly conversation (in this case, with Green’s history and the speakers featured in the video)
  • Acknowledges the work and ideas of others with proper use of quotation, paraphrase, and citations


[1] Alice Wiemers, “Primary Sources & the Work of the Historian,” HUM 104: The Future is Now, Davidson College, Davidson, N.C., 26 January 2023.