Constructing a Narrative of African American Schooling after Reconstruction

Sarah Thomson
Ph.D. pre-candidate, Teaching & Teacher Education
University of Michigan

Course: United States History
Syllabus Section: Reconstruction, Jim Crow era
Audience: Secondary Students

Background Information

Historians hold conflicting views as to whether Reconstruction, the period immediately following the Civil War from 1865 to 1877, represents overall progress or decline for the African American community. On one hand, the U.S. government, the Freedmen's Bureau, and other organizations provided funding for public schooling and extended other long-overdue services and rights to African Americans during this time. On the other hand, the failures of Reconstruction to fully realize the goals of ensuring equality and protecting citizens' rights led to the establishment of Black Codes throughout the South and ushered in an unprecedented period of white violence toward African Americans. Therefore, the historical question of whether Reconstruction and the decades following represent a period of progress or decline for the African American community is a relevant one without a clear, definitive answer.

This lesson sequence attempts to examine that question through the lens of education, and complicate the traditional, oversimplified narrative that many students hold about African American schooling: specifically, that school segregation was bad for African Americans, and school integration after Brown v. Board resolved the problem. By examining different primary source documents and different perspectives on African American schooling from the Civil War onward, students will construct an interpretation of this time period and attempt to answer the essential question: Did events from 1865–1955 represent a period of progress or decline in African American schooling? Investigating this question positions students to consider multiple perspectives and construct their own interpretation of a contested time period in American history.

Scope and Sequence

This lesson is appropriate for a secondary audience, but could be adapted for use in an undergraduate American History course. The readings, discussion questions, and activities in this lesson sequence would ideally take place across two to three 60-minute class periods.

Learning Goals

During this lesson sequence, students will:

  • Read and understand different perspectives on African American schooling during and after Reconstruction.
  • Generate questions from different historical sources about African American schooling during and after Reconstruction.
  • Construct a narrative that attempts to address these questions and reflects their historical interpretation of African American schooling during and after Reconstruction.

These goals correspond to the following Standards:
Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies
RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

C3 Framework for History
D2.His.12.9-12 Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.
D2.His.16.9-12 Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.

Essential Questions

  1. Did events from 1865-1955 represent a period of progress or decline in African American schooling?
  2. How did Reconstruction impact African American schooling?
  3. How do we construct interpretations of the past that represent the multiple perspectives of those who lived at that time?

Instructional Procedures

Introduce the lesson with a visual inquiry. Show students the following images, one at a time:

Ask students to consider the following questions after displaying each image:

  • What do you see in this image? What stands out to you?
  • When was this image created? What do we know about what was happening at this time?
  • According to what you see in this image, what was schooling like for African American students?

You may choose to model this inquiry process with the first image, and then provide opportunities for the students to engage in the inquiry with partners as a form of guided practice. Alternatively, you could conduct a whole-class inquiry for each image. For younger students, I suggest using fewer images, perhaps three instead of five. You might also consider creating or providing a graphic organizer for students to record their thinking in response to each question, and to help them think across images.

Students will notice that the images appear in chronological order, beginning in 1860 and ending in 1955. They may also notice differences across images as to the skin color of the teacher(s), the student(s), school buildings, clothing, etc. After examining and discussing these questions across each of the images, introduce the main inquiry question for this lesson sequence: Was 1865–1955 a period of progress or decline in African American schooling? You could ask students to write a 1–2 sentence response to this question based on their prior knowledge and based on the five images, and then come back to their responses at the end of the lesson, after investigating other sources and other perspectives.

Depending on your students and course, consider reading this background information about African American Education from 1830 to 1890 before continuing the historical investigation.

It will be helpful for students to consider the narrative of African American schooling chronologically and thematically. Each of the periods below represents approximately one 60-minute class period, though you could consider omitting certain sources to shorten this lesson sequence. You might also consider adapting these documents to meet the needs of your students' different reading abilities:

I. Schooling during Reconstruction

II. Schooling during Jim Crow

III. Schooling in the wake of Brown v. Board

Questions for Discussion

Provide students with the following questions to consider while reading and analyzing these sources. You may consider modeling the process with at least one document, and you may want to create a graphic organizer for students to record their responses:

  1. Who created this document? What do we know, if anything, about that person's background that might influence their perspective?
  2. When was this document created? What else was happening at that time?
  3. What information does this document provide us about schooling for African American students?
  4. Is that information relevant or significant? Why?
  5. What questions does this document raise for you? Why?

Debrief and discuss these questions as a class.


The goal of this lesson is for students to construct a historical interpretation of African American schooling during and after Reconstruction, in response to the question "Did events from 1865-1955 represent a period of progress or decline in African American schooling?" There are multiple approaches to assessing students' mastery of this objective. Here are a few suggestions that align with the Standards listed earlier:

Option One: Students select one image, from any of the documents provided or from other resources, that appropriately represents their narrative of African American schooling from 1865-1955. They create a written justification that explains why this image adequately reflects their interpretation of this period in schooling, using evidence from at least five of the documents.

Option Two: Students construct a timeline of African American schooling, selecting seven to ten historical events and/or people that sufficiently represent their evidence-based interpretation of schooling during this time period. They create an accompanying write-up to justify their choices.

Option Three: Students answer the question, "Did events from 1865-1955 represent a period of progress or decline in African American schooling?" in a few paragraphs, providing a thesis statement and supporting evidence from at least five of the documents across different time periods.

Option Four: Students read and critique an excerpt on African American schooling during and after Reconstruction from an American History textbook. In their critique, students write an addendum to the textbook excerpt that includes additional evidence from five to seven documents from their investigation, noting where the evidence supports, contradicts, and extends(1) the textbook narrative.


(1) The "support, challenge, extend" frame comes from Professor Bob Bain at the University of Michigan. See: Bain, R.B. (2006). Rounding up unusual suspects: Facing the authority hidden in the history classroom. Teacher's College Record, 108(10), pp. 2080-2114.