The Thirteenth Amendment in the Classroom

by Veena Raman

Lecturer in Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University

I teach an honors class for first year students. Currently, we are working on understanding how we learn about being good citizens and what we are asked to pay attention to or take action about.

As we discussed the US Constitution and what we know about this important document, it was interesting to note that few students knew about the Thirteenth Amendment.  The best guess provided was ‘it had something to do with getting rid of slavery’.  When asked, why we do not talk more about this Amendment, the answer was unanimous, “we don’t have slavery anymore, so we don’t have to talk about it.” It was time to examine the issue in depth.

An aspiring lawyer suggested we check if the courts have ever used this Amendment and cited it in their case law. As a class, we discovered that in addition to cases involving the Civil Rights Act, the Amendment was relevant to cases involving slave labor, and forcing someone to work for a creditor until a debt was paid.

This led to a discussion about instances where someone might be forced to work under threat of violence or coercion and we had a conversation about forced labor in sectors such as agriculture, construction, hotels, restaurants and domestic work. Students connected this to the issue of migrants who might not be in the US legally and how they might have no recourse to the legal system. We argued about the difference in being a part of a community and contributing actively to it, as opposed to being a citizen of a nation. We ended the class session with consensus that it was necessary to know how to help victims of labor trafficking and visiting the website of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.