American History as It Happened

MODULE TWO: 1877-1899

DBQ Essay


Directions: The following prompt asks you to write a well-organized, concise essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents One through Seven and your knowledge of the period referred to in the question. The best answers will not only cite key pieces of evidence from the documents but also include outside knowledge of the period.

DBQ:  Using the documents below and your outside knowledge, evaluate the validity of this statement by author and African American activist W.E.B. Du Bois in 1935 about liberation, Reconstruction, and its aftermath: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Based on the question and the documents, students might come up with a thesis along these lines:

THESIS: W.E.B. Du Bois concisely and accurately summarizes the African-American experience over the last third of the 19th century. In the decade following the Civil War, blacks attained their long-sought emancipation and exercised civil rights (‘a brief moment in the sun’), including voting and electing representatives to the US Senate and House of Representatives. Following the departure of federal troops in 1877, however, Southern blacks were once again subjugated by law and victimized by violence.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document One: Black hopes for freedom after liberation were undermined by white landlords and white-owned businesses exerting financial and, ultimately, political control by charging them extraordinarily high fees to borrow money, and—if they couldn’t pay the loans back promptly—subsequently seizing their land, produce, and tools.

Document Two: Voting rights were promised to African-American men by the 15th Amendment in 1870s, but post-Reconstruction attempts to exercise that franchise frequently were futile. In this example, white men in Danville, Va., reacted violently on election day in 1883 to what they later described as black “insolence.” Their response resulted in the killing of four black men.

Document Three: New laws promising African-Americans the opportunity to educate their children in public schools proved impossible to realize, and not just in the South. This document records how recent legislation in Ohio ensured access to local schools for black students but was rendered ineffectual by white parents in the small town of Felicity, who used violence to prevent its enforcement.

Document Four: “Equality under the law” was subverted after Reconstruction. In this example, African-American convicts in South Carolina were given harsher penalties than whites who committed the same acts. While the law was supposedly the same for all, it permitted juries to recommend mercy… favoring white defendants being judged by white juries.

Document Five: Despite what laws or constitutional amendments prescribed, most whites in the post-Reconstruction South flatly rejected the idea of black equality. In his letter, W.J. Alexander concedes that slavery degraded African-Americans but denounces what he characterizes as black immorality and places the blame for that on Northern merchants (“the carpet-bag reign”) and officials who came to the South during Reconstruction.

Document Six: The doctrine of “separate but equal” was invented to justify consistent, ongoing discrimination against African-Americans (codified in “Jim Crow laws”). This editorial subtly attacks the policy because of its inherent inequalities, pointing out, for example, that the supposedly equal first-class car reserved for “colored passengers” actually devotes half of its space to smokers. In another sly observation about false equivalency, the document cites a Southern newspaper’s comment about the Jim Crow car that “no white person is allowed to ride in that car, as no negro is permitted in the first-class coach for whites.”

Document Seven: In the slavery years, African-Americans had no legal protection; black people were deemed to be property. But during Reconstruction—their “brief moment in the sun”—blacks were declared citizens, and could vote, serve on juries, and had the right to due process of law. When Reconstruction ended, black peoples’ rights were undermined, and due process was often replaced by extralegal actions, including lynching—mob-driven murders. As this article shows, the primary reason given for lynchings—that they were solely used to punish those who had violated white women—was a lie.

Here are examples from the documents that a student might offer that would fit the question:

  • White Southerners responded to African-Americans’ freedom and newly granted rights by discriminating against blacks and by exploiting, denigrating, and attacking them. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • White southerners acted to prevent black people from exercising the civil and/or voting rights they had been granted during Reconstruction (2, 3, 4, 6, 7)
  • Southern towns and states freed from Federal oversight passed laws to restrict the rights of African-Americans (2, 3,4, 6, 7)
  • After losing the protection of Federal troops in 1877, African-Americans were regular victims of intimidation and violence (2, 3, 6, 7)



The specifics above will help you determine if students have responded to the DBQ with appropriate information. In addition, the College Board offers the following comments on what characteristics define an excellent response to a DBQ prompt.

According to the College Board, excellent DBQ essays should do all the following:

  • Contain an evaluative thesis that establishes the student’s argument and responds to the question. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion. Neither the introduction nor the conclusion is necessarily limited to a single paragraph.
  • Describe a broader historical context immediately relevant to the question that relates the topic of the question to historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or after the time frame of the question. This description should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Explain how at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence, beyond those found in the documents, relates to an argument about the question. (This example must be different from the evidence used to earn the point for contextualization.) This explanation should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Use historical reasoning to explain relationships among the pieces of evidence provided in the response and how they corroborate, qualify, or modify the argument, made in the thesis, that addresses the entirety of the question. In addition, a good response should utilize the content of at least six documents to support an argument about the question.
  • Explain how the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to the argument for at least four of the documents.

For more guidance about evaluating responses to a DBQ essay, download this PDF, which includes scoring guidelines.