Slavery & Abolitionism | Civil War: 54th Regiment | Up From Slavery | W.E.B. Dubois and NAACP | Great Migration, Harlem Renaissance | Civil Rights Era | Raisin in the Sun | Barack Obama | Picturing America | Featured Lessons | Featured Websites | About the Image
February’s Black History Month is the perfect time to investigate the tremendous contributions that African Americans have made to the history and cultural development of the United States. In this feature, teachers, parents, and students will be introduced to some of the best resources for telling the story of African Americans as well as some of the most influential voices and the most memorable images from that history, literature and culture.
The beginning of African American history is intricately intertwined with the history of slavery in the Americas. A new NEH-sponsored website Voyages, the African Slave Trade Database aggregates information on almost 35,000 slaving voyages that forcibly embarked over ten million Africans for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The website offers researchers, teachers and, students a chance to rediscover the reality of one of the largest forced movements of people in world history.
In order to present the trans-Atlantic slave trade database to a broader audience, particularly a grade 6-12 audience, a dedicated team of teachers and curriculum developers from around the United States developed six lesson plans that explore the database. Utilizing the various resources of the website, these lessons plans allow students to engage the history and legacy of the Atlantic slave trade in diverse and meaningful ways. The lessons are all aligned with national standards in history (National Center for History in the Schools), social studies (National Council for the Social Studies), and geography (National Council for Geography Education) and range in both their grade levels and activities. The lessons also suggest readings for more information about the Slave Trade.
While millions of men, women, and children were enslaved, many thousands were free. A new NEH-funded website, Crafting Freedom, focuses on nine exemplary African Americans, called "freedom crafters." The courage and ingenuity of such individuals as Henry “Box” Brown, Elizabeth Keckly, David Walker, and Harriet Jacobs are vividly brought to life through short introductory videos. Critical themes such as resistance to slavery, black entrepreneurship, and African American creativity in the face of oppression are emphasized. Here you'll find ready-to-use lesson plans, PDF slide shows, teacher tools, and student handouts that bridge the gap between the expanding scholarship on the 19th-century black experience and the need for this history to be more widely understood. Anyone—the novice or veteran—can teach with this site because teacher training is built-in and all instructional materials are ready to be downloaded and used.
Despite the fact that slaves were not often educated, and teaching a slave to read and write was illegal in many places, thus hindering the ability of the slave community to write its own history, there are a number of primary sources for learning more about the lives of African Americans who lived under slavery. The two part lesson Families in Bondage draws on letters written by African Americans in slavery and by free blacks to loved ones still in bondage, singling out a few among the many slave experiences to offer students a glimpse into slavery and its effects on African American family life.
Among the most famous first-hand accounts of slave life in America are the collected writings of Frederick Douglass. Of particular interest and quality is his 1845 publication the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Teachers and parents will want to visit the EDSITEment curriculum unit From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography. This unit consists of three lesson plans with student interactives that are designed to help students investigate the rhetorical devices used by Douglass while placing his writing in their historical context
During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass urged African American men to enlist in the army to support the Union. The first regiment of these men recruited in the North, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment Volunteer Infantry was commanded by Robert Shaw. The dramatic story of this regiment was told in the movie Glory and can be studied through the National Park Service website Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th regiment. Students will be fascinated to learn about the bronze public monument to these brave and loyal soldiers created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, which is included among the images in Picturing America as no. 10-A.
After the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment forbidding slavery, African Americans were passionate about getting an education, yet they faced enormous challenges in doing so. In his powerful autobiography, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington told the story of his life-long dedication to the cause of racial advancement through education. Washington was born a slave, but he went on to found the Tuskegee Institute where thousands of black students were taught “industrial education,” that is, practical skills in agriculture and the mechanical arts that would equip them to earn a living as craftsmen in the rural South.
Students can learn about Booker T. Washington’s life and legacy through the EDSITEment lesson on contemporary sculptor, Martin Puryear and his sculpture, Ladder for Booker T. Washington. (Background information on the sculpture is available at on the Picturing America website as no. 20-B). The lesson uses Puryear’s work to explore Washington’s career and achievement, then considers the ladder as a metaphor for an individual’s or a group’s struggle to overcome obstacles toward the achievement of a goal.
Despite the leadership of Washington, there was strong opposition to civil and political rights for African American. In the South as many as two hundred lynchings a year occurred. These unlawful acts, combined with Jim Crow legislation, outraged many Northern progressives. In 1908, a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, lead a group of distinguished men and women to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that was to have a vast and enduring influence on American life. The purpose of the NAACP was to investigate lynchings, publicize injustices, bring cases before the Supreme Court, and advertise “the marvelous achievements of black people in the United States.” In 1910, Du Bois joined the newly-formed organization as the editor of their magazine The Crisis. During his tenure, Du Bois wrote hundreds of editorials denouncing Jim Crow laws, attacking lynching, and even advocated armed self defense in the face of lynch mobs.
Three new EDSITEment lessons are devoted to the work of the NAACP over three decades. In “Birth of a Nation, the NAACP, and the Balancing of Rights” students learn how D.W. Griffith’s monumental epic Birth of a Nation both reflected and influenced racial attitudes. They then analyze and evaluate NAACP efforts to prohibit the showing of the film. During the years 1909–1939, the organization sought passage of anti-lynching legislation. In “The NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Legislation Campaign in the 1920’s,” students can take part in a mock debate in the U.S. Senate over the proposed legislation. In the companion lesson, “The NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Legislation in the 1930’s,” students participate in role-play activity in which they become members of a newspaper or magazine editorial board preparing a retrospective report about these unsuccessful lobbying efforts. As the students analyze and synthesize a variety of primary sources in both lessons, they gain a better understanding of the causes of the failure of these NAACP campaigns and the reasons the organization decided to shift its focus to a legal campaign to end segregation.
During World War I, Du Bois strongly supported the war effort, with the hopes that the patriotism of African American soldiers would be recognized or rewarded by white military commanders and their fellow citizens back home. The lesson African American Soldiers in World War I: The 92nd and 93rd Divisions examines why African Americans were so willing to fight, notwithstanding the discrimination they faced at home, and it examines how they were affected by prejudice in American society. A companion lesson African American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed? compares race relations before and after the war.
The history of American culture is filled with the voices of African American writers and artists, many of whom took their own local communities, from New York to New Orleans, as their subjects. One of the most important events in twentieth-century African American history was the migration of African Americans out of the rural South to the great northern cities. This exodus was gathering strength at the time of World War I and fundamentally altered the ethnic mix of New York City and industrial centers such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. A recent history of the movement has been written by Isabel Wilkerson called “The Warmth of Many Suns: The Epic History of the Great Migration” Students can learn more about this story through the Migration Series paintings of Jacob Lawrence, which is available through the Phillips Collection feature. One of these panels, No. 57, is included in the National Endowment for the Humanities Picturing America initiative as no.17-A, and is the subject of an EDSITEment lesson, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series: Removing the Mask.
Beginning in the 1920s, after many years of slow gestation, African American literature, music, and art burst forth during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Not all writers, musicians, and artists associated with the cultural rebirth (renaissance is a French word that literally means “rebirth”) were based in Harlem throughout the period, but most spent at least some period living among the group of artists that made that community a hotbed of artistic expression. Teachers and students can learn more about some of the poets who were part of the Harlem Renaissance from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Academy of American Poets.
Many of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance not only reflected the daily reality of African American life, but also the cadences and sounds of African American communities like Harlem in their work. This included capturing the colloquial construction of language that brought to life the writing of poets like Sterling Brown, whose poem "Riverbank Blues" is available from The Academy of American Poets. Brown’s “Riverbank Blues” and as well as poems by other black writers exemplify a growing interest in capturing and recording contemporary life in African American communities as it was actually lived.
Zora Neale Hurston is another writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance who was had a sharp ear for the vernacular. Not only was Hurston a novelist, a short story writer, and an essayist, but she was also a trained ethnographer, having studied under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University in New York City. She is the author of numerous short stories, an autobiography, and a number of novels, including her most renowned work, the 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Teachers and students can learn more about Hurston’s writing, as well as her ethnographic research on African American folklore, in the EDSITEment lesson plan Folklore in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
One of the most celebrated and beloved poets of the twentieth century and an artist who was an integral member of the Harlem Renaissance, is the writer Langston Hughes. In a recent survey by The Academy of American Poets, Hughes was voted America’s favorite poet. Hughes is best known for his vivid depictions of African American life in America from the 1920s of his youth through to his death in the late 1960s.
According to The Academy of American Poets’ brief biography of Hughes, he “wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.” His poems are often built on a foundation of emotion, which sometimes explodes like the anger in his well known work, I, Too, Sing America:
Tomorrow, I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Students and teachers can learn more about the life and the work of Langston Hughes in the The Poet's Voice: Langston Hughes and You an EDSITEment lesson plan for grades 6-8. Older student can explore Hughes mastery of metaphor in Introducing Metaphors Through Poetry, EDSITEment lesson plan for high school by a critical analysis of his poem, Dreams, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Academy of American Poets.
The Harlem Renaissance came in with the economic boom of the post-World War I decade, and the artists and writers who had stoked the creative fire of the movement were, like most of America’s and the world’s population, hit hard by the Great Depression. Although the Harlem Renaissance struggled to get by, the momentum that drove it through the 1920s slowed and eventually faded away as the world moved toward another world war. Teachers and students can investigate this important period and the Harlem community of the 1920s in images with the online exhibits produced by the EDSITEment-reviewed Web resource Digital Schomburg, which has been created by the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in collaboration with the New York Public Library.
“You don't integrate with a sinking ship.” This was Malcolm X's curt explanation of why he did not favor integration of blacks with whites in the United States in the post-war years. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction.
In contrast with Malcolm X's black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered "the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest" as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called "the hatred and despair of the black nationalist," believing that the fate of black Americans was "tied up with America's destiny." Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that "the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God" could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.
The lesson Black Separatism or the Beloved Community? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr contrasts the respective aims and means of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to evaluate the possibilities for black American progress in the 1960s.
Students will surely be more familiar with the name of Dr. King, and will most likely have read or have heard Dr. King’s speech that is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Web resource, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute. Dr. King is today one of the most well-known faces and voices of the civil rights movement and the push for racial equality that is so key to understanding the history of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Study the long train of marchers in one of the greatest images of this movement. Photographer James Karales created this photograph during the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965 for Look magazine. The image is included in the Picturing America portfolio as no. 19-B. Ask students to imagine what it was like to travel on foot for four days, trudging the 54 miles between these two cities in the damp, early March weather.
King was known as a great orator, and his speeches were created with a masterful rhetorical style that combined Biblical references with those drawn directly from America’s history. With words that call to mind Langston Hughes’ poem, I, Too, Sing America. Dr. King declared that the time had come for action. The tomorrow of Hughes’ poem was today:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of "now." This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
EDSITEment has resources for students of all ages on Dr. King and the civil rights movement. K-2 students are introduced to the civil rights movement and to the "I Have a Dream" speech with the lesson plan Dr. King’s Dream. Older primary school students can engage with the subject of the late Dr. King with the grades 3-5 lesson plan Let Freedom Ring: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle school students investigate the deep links between Dr. King’s pursuit of change through nonviolent means and the successful campaign by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British colonial rule in the grades 6-8 lesson plan Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Power of Nonviolence. Finally, high school students have the opportunity to learn about the civil rights movement by visiting the places where the battles of the Civil Rights Movement took place—such as in the South’s public school systems as they were forced to desegregate—with the 9-12 grade lesson plan, Ordinary People, Ordinary Places: The Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. King’s words still resonate today as one of the most eloquent calls for justice ever uttered:
Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring, and when this happens . . . when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The optimism generated by Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement and its successful culmination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was echoed in the work of the African American artists who were asserting their creative identities on the American scene. Romare Bearden, one of the first artists to depict popular black culture from an African American point of view, is a noteworthy example. Ask students to examine his collage The Dove, another of the images (no. 17-B) from Picturing America, as the embodiment of this optimism. Ask them to consider what Bearden is saying about the role of the black artist and the black urban community in this tumultuous period.
Finally it should not be forgotten that during the post-WWII years, owning a home of one's own in the suburbs was part of the American Dream for millions. But for black people living in cities the move was fraught with challenges. Americans suffered from a critical housing shortage after the war. Housing construction in the cities centered on public housing while in the suburbs builders concentrated on single-family, owner-occupied homes. A Long Island building contractor named Arthur Levitt revolutionized the housing market by bringing mass production techniques to suburban home construction. Unfortunately, Levittown contracts contained covenants restricting occupancy by “members other than the Caucasian race” as seen in the EDSITEment lesson, Building Suburbia: Highways and Housing in Postwar America
Reading Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, the play that "changed American theater forever," will help you and your students explore how the social, educational, economical and political climate of the 1950’s affected the African Americans' quest for "The American Dream"
Maya Angelou, celebrated poet, actress, director and activist, speaks to persistence in the face of adversity in her well known poem Still I Rise in EDSITEment lesson, Introducing Metaphors through Poetry, where she employs figures of speech throughout the poem, and in the final stanza she includes these lines:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Maya Angelou's poem is available from the American Academy of Poets.
Finally, the election of Barack Obama as the first Africian American President is commonly described as "historic." But what does that term mean? Does the historic character of his election mean different things to different people? Does its meaning depend on the race, age, class, gender, geographic region, or political party of the person using the term? While the most common usage refers to the fact that, for the first time, an African American will be President of the United States, the challenges that he will face both at home and abroad are historic as well: the country is fighting two wars and confronts the most serious financial problems since the Great Depression. This lesson focuses on the relationship between the civil rights movement and Obama's election, but it also asks students why they think Barack Obama's election is "historic." In the lesson, The Election of Barack Obama 44th President of the United States students put the election in historical context by studying two of his speeches and reviewing some of the history of African American voting rights.
There are five Picturing America images on the PA website which are appropriate for teaching various aspects of Black History Month
Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.