In this activity, students analyze primary sources from the Reconstruction era and consider how the democratic and anti-democratic strands of US history were present during this period.
Note: At the beginning of this activity, let your students know that Source 4 describes offensive stereotypes and racially-motivated violence. (Our lesson Sterotypes and "Single Stories" can help to unpack the nature and consequences of stereotyping.) Additionally, some of these sources use the term “Negro.” You may wish to point out the use of this word to your students. In earlier times, this was an acceptable term for referring to African Americans. While not offensive in the past, today the term “Negro” is outdated and inappropriate.
If your students are not familiar with the Reconstruction era, you may want to begin by providing them with a few bullet points, such as:
- The Reconstruction era (1865-1877) was the period of US history immediately following the Civil War. During this era, Black Americans argued that they should be granted the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
- During Reconstruction, millions of Black Americans supported the Republican Party, which formed in the 1850s in opposition to slavery, while the Democratic Party supported the re-establishment of white supremacist governments in southern states.
- Laws passed by Congress mandated that the states of the former Confederacy allow all Black American men to vote. Later, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and forbade any state from refusing the vote to a person because of their race or past enslavement.
- Buoyed by the votes of millions of Black voters, about 2,000 Black Americans were elected to political offices at all levels of government. South Carolina and Mississippi elected legislatures that were majority Black.
- By 1877, a violent reassertion of white supremacy led to the overthrow of the Republican-run governments of Southern states supported by Black voters.
To give your students an overview of the Reconstruction era, play an excerpt of our video Introduction: A Contested History (from 3:20-4:57). Note: This film includes a variety of illustrations, engravings, and political cartoons that were created during the Reconstruction era. Some of them portray individual people according to racial stereotypes that were common at the time.
Ask your students:
What information in the video did you find surprising, interesting, or troubling?
Students can share their answer to one part of the question with the class using the Wraparound strategy.
Then, ask your students to view or read Sources 2, 3, and 4 on Handout 1: Sources and to complete the chart on Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter for these sources.