Teacher's Guide

African American History and Culture in the United States

Mural of Carter G. Woodson on 9th St NW in Washington, D.C.
Photo caption

Mural of Carter G. Woodson on 9th St NW in Washington, D.C.

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

―Carter G. Woodson

Our Teacher's Guide offers a collection of lessons and resources for K-12 social studies, literature, and arts classrooms that center around the achievements, perspectives, and experiences of African Americans across U.S. history.  Below you will find materials for teaching and learning about the perspectives of slaves and free African Americans during the American Revolution, the work of the Freedman’s Bureau during and after Reconstruction, the artistry of Jacob Lawrence, the reality faced by African American soldiers returning home after fighting in WWI, the songs and efforts of the Freedom Riders during the long civil rights movements, and the works of Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou.

Guiding Questions

Who is included in your curriculum and who can be added when teaching African American history?

 

What are the lasting contributions of African Americans to the culture and history of the United States?

How has change come about during the long civil rights movement?

African American History

The first national Negro History Week was organized by Carter G. Woodson in February 1926 to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. As interest and advocacy for expanding the study of African American history developed, a desire to expand beyond just one week also grew. In 1970, students at Kent State University celebrated Black History Month from January to February of that year, and since 1976, each President of the United States has endorsed commemorating February as Black History Month across the country.

The resources and lessons provided below are organized chronologically to illustrate that the achievements, perspectives, and experiences of African Americans are important to social studies and history curricula all year long. Users will find connections between these materials and those provided in subsequent sections of this Teacher's Guide to develop cross-disciplinary learning activities and projects. 

Slavery and the Early Republic

Taking Up Arms and the Challenge of Slavery in the Revolutionary EraThis lesson is designed to help students understand the transition to armed resistance and the contradiction in the Americans' rhetoric about slavery through the examination of a series of documents.

Slavery and the American Founding: The “Inconsistency not to be excused”Framed by the compelling question "How did the American founders' views on slavery shape the creation of the republic?", this lesson asks students to examine the views of American founders regarding slavery and evaluate the extent to which they reflect the principles of the American Revolution. 

After the American Revolution: Free African Americans in the NorthWhat were the experiences of African-American individuals in the North in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War? To what extent were freed slaves citizens in the newly independent nation? This lesson provides primary sources for students to analyze in order to evaluate these questions. 

Slavery in the Colonial NorthPhilipsburg Manor, located in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is a historic site owned and operated by Historic Hudson Valley. The site tells the story of the 23 enslaved Africans who were the only full-time, year round residents of the Manor, and whose forced labor was the backbone of the Philipse’s international trading empire.

Twelve Years a Slave: Analyzing Slave NarrativesWhat does Solomon Northup’s narrative reveal about the relation between slavery and social institutions such as marriage and the family? Why are slave narratives’ authenticity and truthfulness questioned? Examine the primary sources that became the basis for a major motion picture. 

Perspectives on the Slave NarrativeWorking with primary sources that provide insight into the lives of slave owners, slaves, abolitionists, students gather evidence to respond to the compelling question "What role did the slave narrative have both in historical and in literary traditions?"

Abolition and Reconstruction

Harriet Tubman and the Underground RailroadIn this lesson, students will comprehend the organizational structure of the Underground Railroad; learn about one of its most famous conductors, Harriet Tubman; and consider the legacy of the heroines and heroes of slavery resistance. 

Frederick Douglass's Narrative: Myth of the Happy SlaveIn this lesson, students analyze Douglass's first-hand account to see how he successfully contrasts myths with the reality of life under slavery.

From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass’s 1845 AutobiographyFrederick Douglass's 1845 narrative of his life is a profile in both moral and physical courage. In this lesson sequence, students examine how he contrasts reality with romanticism and powerfully uses imagery and rhetorical appeals to persuade the reader of slavery's evil. 

"I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary!
Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.
The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common."

—Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?"

Frederick Douglass What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?This student activity brings together video and audio media, along with the text of Douglass's speech, to give students opportunities to discuss and deliberate who the 4th of July is for and the extent to which Douglass is justified in his position. 

David Walker vs. John Day: Two Nineteenth-Century Free Black MenDavid Walker, a free African American, invoked the Bible and the Declaration of Independence to challenge the inequities of American slavery in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829). John Day, also a free African American, was a major proponent of colonization and an early Liberian colonist who argued that African Americans would never achieve equality in the United States. Through this lesson, students examine the conflicting perspectives over slavery, abolition, and equality.

Mission US 2: Flight to FreedomIn Mission 2: “Flight to Freedom,” players take on the role of Lucy, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky. As they navigate her escape and journey to Ohio, they discover that life in the “free” North is dangerous and difficult.

The Battle Over ReconstructionThis lesson sequence examines the nature and extent of the social, political, and economic conditions, and how they worked to shape the debate about restoring southern states to the Union as well as their lasting impact in shaping the national debate in the years following the Civil War.

Teacher’s Guide: The Reconstruction EraThis Teacher’s Guide provides compelling questions to frame a unit of study and inquiry projects, along with activity ideas on Reconstruction that include use of newspapers from the era and resources for social studies, ELA, and music education.

Jim Crow and War

Birth of a Nation, NAACP, and Balancing of Rights: Why did the NAACP challenge the showing of Birth of a Nation? The lesson asks students to analyze the efforts of the NAACP and evaluate the decision to not censor the film.  

NAACP's Anti-Lynching Campaigns in the 1920s: This lesson sequence engages students with the deeply serious issues of Jim Crow and lynching in the United States during the inter-war period. 

African American Soldiers in World War I: The 92nd and 93rd Division: Students combine their research using a variety of sources, including firsthand accounts, to develop a hypothesis evaluating contradictory statements about the performance of the 92nd Infantry Division in World War I.

African American Soldiers after WWI: Had Race Relations Changed?: Analyze archival photographs and archival newspaper accounts about race relations in the United States to evaluate different points of view about post-war riots in Chicago.

African Americans and the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corp: Students considers documents that present the CCC from the perspective of black participants in order to evaluate the impact of this New Deal program on race relations in America.

Civil Rights and Now

The Green Book: African American Experiences of Travel and Place in the U.S.How have the intersections of race and place impacted U.S. history and culture? This inquiry-based lesson combines individual investigations with whole or small group analysis of primary sources and visual media.

Civil Rights and the Cold WarThis lesson plan attempts to dissolve the artificial boundary between domestic and international affairs in the postwar period to show students how we choose to discuss history. 

The Freedom Riders and the Popular Music of the Civil Rights MovementThrough collaborative activities and presentations, students will find the meaning behind the music, and compare and contrast the major figures, documents, and events of the day to better understand the political and cultural messages. 

Malcolm X: A Radical Vision for Civil Rights: This essay examines the conflicting points of view surrounding how best to advance the civil rights movement in the U.S. during the 1960s with a comparative analysis of the philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. 

Black Separatism and the Beloved Community: Malcolm XThis lesson will contrast the respective aims and means of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to evaluate how best to achieve black American progress in the 1960s.

JFK, Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Movement: Resources provided in this lesson support student analysis of the critical role of activists in pushing the Kennedy Administration to face the contradiction between its ideals and the realities of federal politics.

Grassroots Perspectives on Civil Rights: Focus on Women: This essay not only looks at the work of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but specifically the role of women within the activism of this student-led civil rights organization. 

Revolution 67: Protest Why & How?: The intent of this lesson sequence is to help students comprehend and explain the changes in how the people of Newark, New Jersey viewed government and how those attitudes affected political change in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: This lesson sequence presents the views of several important black leaders who shaped the debate over how to achieve freedom and equality in a nation that had long denied a portion of the American citizenry the full protection of their rights.

Let Freedom Ring: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Students will learn about the life and work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. by listening to a brief biography, viewing photographs of the March on Washington, and reading a portion of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Election of Barack Obama: 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."

African American Literature and Poetry

Poetry, literature, and plays make up the collection of resources and lessons provided below for K-12 literature and language arts courses. Users will find connections between these materials and those provided in subsequent sections of this Teacher's Guide to develop cross-disciplinary learning activities and projects. 

Teacher's Guide: The Works of Langston Hughes: This Teacher's Guide includes video of public readings, access to NEH supported projects dedicated to the work of Langston Hughes, and classroom ready materials for teaching his poetry.

The Poet's Voice: Langston Hughes and You: This lesson asks students to consider what is meant by voice in poetry, and what qualities have made the voice of Langston Hughes a favorite for so many people?

Teacher's Guide: Maya Angelou: A Phenomenal WomanThis Teacher's Guide provides access to collections of poetry, lesson activity ideas, and multimedia resources to hear and see Dr. Angelou perform her poetry. 

Gwendolyn Brooks' Poem "We Real Cool": In this lesson, students will closely analyze the poem's line breaks and the effect of enjambment on their reading and interpretation of the poem.

                The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

        We real cool. We   

        Left school. We

        Lurk late. We

        Strike straight. We

        Sing sin. We   

        Thin gin. We

        Jazz June. We   

        Die soon.

"A Raisin in the Sun": Whose American Dream?This interdisciplinary lesson includes a critical reading and analysis of the play, close examination of biographical and historical documents produced at different times during the long civil rights movement, and a variety of assessment options.

Toni Morrison's Beloved: For Sixty Million and More: Close reading and reflective activities guide thoughtful inquiry into the novel and its major themes, while also providing teachers and students with creative outlets for making connections with one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Folk Speech and Figurative LanguageThis lesson provides students with an opportunity to observe how Hurston creates a unique literary voice by combining folklore, folk language, and traditional literary techniques.


Scottsboro Boys and To Kill a Mockingbird: Two Trials for the Classroom: In this lesson, students will perform a comparative close reading of select informational texts from the Scottsboro Boys trials alongside sections from To Kill a Mockingbird to see how fictional “truth” both mirrors and departs from the factual experience that inspired it.

African American Arts and Culture

The resources and lessons provided below are designed for the study of art, music, and culture in K-12 classrooms. Users will find connections between these materials and those provided in subsequent sections of this Teacher's Guide to develop cross-disciplinary learning activities and projects. 

Teacher’s Guide: The Reconstruction EraThis Teacher’s Guide provides compelling questions to frame a unit of study and inquiry projects, along with activity ideas on Reconstruction that include use of newspapers from the era and resources for social studies, ELA, and music education.

The Freedom Riders and the Popular Music of the Civil Rights MovementThrough collaborative activities and presentations, students will find the meaning behind the music, and compare and contrast the major figures, documents, and events of the day to better understand the political and cultural messages. 

The Music of African American History: This lesson traces the long history of how African Americans have used music as a vehicle for communicating beliefs, aspirations, observations, joys, despair, resistance, and more across U.S. history.

Learning the Blues: Students take a virtual field trip to Memphis, Tennessee, one of the prominent centers of blues activities, and explore the history of the blues in the work of W. C. Handy and a variety of country blues singers whose music preserves the folk origins of this unique American art form.

Martin Puryear's Ladder for Booker T. Washington: Students examine Booker T. Washington’s life and legacy through Martin Puryear’s sculpture and consider how the title of Puryear’s sculpture is reflected in the meanings we can draw from it. 

Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: Removing the MaskFocusing on composition, image, setting, characterization, and tone, while also analyzing the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Helene Johnson, students are invited to compare and contrast the works while considering how each work represents the life and changing roles of African Americans from the late nineteenth century to the Harlem Renaissance and The Great Migration. 

Romare Bearden's The Dove: A Meeting of Vision and Sound: How do art and music reflect & inspire change in American society? This lesson asks students examine this and other questions about history, art, and culture.

Picturing Freedom: Selma to Montgomery in March, 1965: After analyzing photojournalist James Karales's iconic photograph of the march, reading background material on it, and considering what the marchers might have thought and felt, students write and illustrate a postcard describing this civil rights event from a marcher's viewpoint.

NEH Connections

The National Endowment for the Humanities continues to fund a wide array of projects, programs, and publications focused on telling the many stories of African Americans in the United States. The following collection supplements the resources provided above and extends the work that can be done across K-12 classrooms when teaching African American history and culture. 

Colored Conventions Project: From 1830 until well after the Civil War, African Americans gathered across the United States and Canada to participate in political meetings held at the state and national levels. A cornerstone of Black organizing in the nineteenth century, these “Colored Conventions” brought Black men and women together in a decades-long campaign for civil and human rights.

The Right to Love: The Case of Loving v. Virginia: This Humanities magazine article tells the story of how the freedom to marry across racial lines was tested by a shy Virginia couple, who were very much in love.

August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand: This 2005 documentary tells the story of legendary playwright and 1999 NEH Humanities Award Medal recipient August Wilson. 

Voyages: The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Track the journeys of over 10-12.5 million Africans forced into slavery with this searchable database of passenger records from 36,000 trans-Atlantic slave ship voyages.

W.E.B. Du Bois Papers: This digitized collection of almost 95,000 items was completed by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with the support of a grant from the NEH.

Afropop Worldwide: This Peabody award-winning radio program and online magazine is dedicated to music from Africa and the African diaspora.

Thurgood Marshall Before the Court: Stephen Smith presents the story of Thurgood Marshall's remarkable career in this American Radio Works podcast and website.