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Guiding Question: To what extent did Founding principles of liberty, equality, and justice become a reality for African Americans from Reconstruction to the end of the nineteenth century?
Students will analyze the application of the Founding principles of liberty, justice, and equality from Reconstruction to Plessy v. Ferguson (1865–1896) by:
- Analyzing ideas and actions regarding slavery in primary source documents
- Examining the ways in which legislation and policy, the courts, and individuals and groups were complementary in the quest to end slavery and the ways in which these agents of change were in conflict
- Considering the effectiveness of appeals to end slavery based upon moral purity and the civic virtue of prudence
- Students will reflect on ideas, institutions, and individuals in history in order to decide how they might apply the lessons gleaned from this period to today.
Note that the Attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau poster in this lesson would be considered offensive or derogatory today. This image has been retained in its original form in order to present it accurately in its historical context for student learning, including understanding why it is not acceptable today.
- Anticipate: Image Analysis “Is this a republican form of government? Is this protecting life, liberty, or property? Is this the equal protection of the laws?”, Thomas Nast, 1876
- Introductory Essay: The Lost Promise of Reconstruction and Rise of Jim Crow, 1860-1896
- Graphic Organizer, Primary Sources in Lesson 3
- Concluding Analysis, Lesson 3
- Answer Key, Lesson 3
The following lesson asks students to look at primary source documents as they consider the following question: To what extent did Founding principles of liberty, equality, and justice become a reality for African Americans from Reconstruction to the end of the nineteenth century? The Civil War ended slavery and African Americans were in a position to claim their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But would that happen?
The documents come from a variety of actors in the American republic: legislators and policymakers, the courts, and individuals and groups. As students go through the documents, encourage them to think not only about the principles of liberty, equality, and justice, but also about the way in which these groups interact with each other in creating or stalling change.
The main activity in this lesson requires students to conduct primary source analysis. Two sets of primary sources are included with this lesson: a longer set and an abbreviated set. The abbreviated documents have been selected for learners with lower reading levels or for classes wishing to explore the guiding questions for this lesson that cannot dedicate as much time to it. Questions have been provided for each primary source. Teachers may choose to use the provided questions as scaffolds for students or remove them as best suits their teaching situation. Graphic organizers have been provided to use as an additional tool alongside the questions accompanying each document or in place of them.
For primary source analysis, students may work individually, in pairs, or in small groups as best fits your classroom. Additionally, primary sources can serve as the basis for a stations or jigsaw activity.
Have students complete the Introductory Essay and accompanying questions.
Distribute the Anticipate: Image Analysis “Is this a republican form of government? Is this protecting life, liberty, or property? Is this the equal protection of the laws?”, Thomas Nast, 1876 handout. Note that viewing the image on the Library of Congress site with the link provided in this handout will allow you to zoom in to better see the details.
Have students make their observations of the image and write down their questions. Have students share their results.
Inform students that this image reflects very different aspects of life for African Americans after the Civil War. Violence and hardship were a reality, but great strides were also made under conditions of great adversity, such as a rise in literacy rates and the advent of institutions of Black education that proved instrumental in working toward the full realization of equality.
Students will analyze the primary sources using the questions provided. They can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups as best fits your classroom. Use the provided questions as scaffolds for students or remove them as best suits your teaching situation. A graphic organizer can also be used as an option for document analysis.
Once students have completed the primary sources, distribute the Concluding Analysis. Sorting the documents into the three groups can be done as a class, individually, in pairs, or in small groups as best fits your classroom.
Allow students time to complete the final conclusion and analysis questions individually. These questions are meant to generate discussion.
Debrief with a class discussion if time permits and your classroom culture is well suited to dialogue. Students may also wish to share their responses in small groups or with you privately by collecting responses or posting them to a class website.
Have students reflect on and answer the following question:
Identify a historical moment whose significance struck you, or a person whose words or actions resonated with you. What lesson did this moment or person teach you? How might we apply that to the present day?
- Using the primary sources in this lesson, have students create an annotated timeline of important events during this time period.
- Assign students one or more documents contained in this primary source set and have them create a brief report or presentation about the context of the document, including the time and place it was created, the author and audience, and important phrases and arguments from the full text.
- Have students complete the Point-Counterpoint activity: To What Extent Did American Principles Become a Reality for African Americans during Reconstruction?
- Have students research the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. How does this group celebrate African American history and culture? How does their story connect to the larger story of Reconstruction, the struggle for equality, and the role of education in the struggle?
- Have students work backward from the excerpt from the Supreme Court’s decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case provided in this lesson. What was the full story of events leading up to the case? Who was Homer Plessy? Why did he decide to challenge the law? What was the role of the Citizens Committee challenging the law? How did Plessy, his attorneys, and the Citizens Committee react to the court’s decision in the case?
Lesson 4: The Struggle Continues: Stony the Road (1896-1941)
When Did the Civil Rights Movement Begin? Reconstruction & the Civil Rights Act of 1875
Today, Mary looks at an image from the Reconstruction era that challenges us to reconsider what we mean when we say “the civil rights movement.” Typically, if someone says, "Civil Rights Movement," we think of the 1950s and 1960s, but does the story go back further?
Reconstruction & African American Education | BRIdge from the Past: Art Across U.S. History
How did African Americans experience education during Reconstruction? In this episode of BRIdge from the Past, Mary explores the images of Fisk Jubilee Hall and the Fisk Jubilee Singers to understand the lengths formally enslaved individuals went in order to establish educational facilities and the resistance they faced. What do these images reveal about the African American experience during the time period? How can we use these images to understand the importance of education today?
Thomas Nast on Reconstruction | BRIdge from the Past: Art Across U.S. History
What impact did the Reconstruction Amendments have on the application of our Founding principles? In this video, Mary and Gary explore two Reconstruction-era cartoons by Thomas Nast. “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner" (1869) and “The Union As It Was" (1874) give insight into the nature of liberty and equality in the United States shortly after the Civil War. Do you agree with Nast’s commentary about the intentions and consequences of Reconstruction?
To What Extent Did American Principles Become a Reality for African Americans during Reconstruction?
Two scholars debate this question.
LeeAnna Keith: Exploring Reconstruction | BRI Scholar Talks
Join BRI Senior Teaching Fellow Tony Williams as he sits down with historian LeeAnna Keith, contributor to BRI’s new Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness textbook on the immense obstacles that African Americans continued to encounter during the Reconstruction era and into the twentieth century. Keith explains how African Americans suffered tragic racial violence and white supremacy during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, despite constitutional protections in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. She also touches on an array of other important postwar developments, such as the segregation of African Americans under Jim Crow laws and various restrictions on black civil rights. Finally, Keith finds encouragement in the influential ideas of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington for justice and equality and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century.