American History as It Happened

MODULE TWO: 1877-1899

This module explores the decades following Reconstruction, enumerating the many ways in which the states of the former Confederacy suppressed African-Americans despite the rights granted by passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. Shortly after federal troops were withdrawn in 1877, southern states began implementing “Jim Crow” laws segregating blacks from whites in public places and restricting their voting rights. Law enforcement in these states frequently ignored—in effect permitting and even enabling—extreme violence against, and intimidation of, African-Americans.

Your students will review excerpts from The Nation’s coverage of life in the South during these years, exploring and explaining what needed to be done to ensure racial justice and reunite the nation and what made the task so difficult. Students and teachers have links to PDFs of every article cited in the document section.

Students work with this content to hone the skills necessary for the DBQ portion of the AP US History exam. The practice DBQ to be answered in this module is: Using the documents below along with your outside knowledge, evaluate the validity of this statement by African-American author 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.”

PERIOD SUMMARY: During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the US government worked to rebuild the South, enforce the rights of the region’s newly liberated slaves, and readmit the former Confederate states into the Union. White Southerners in general were fervently opposed to the new freedoms for African-Americans, but federal troops were stationed throughout the 11 formerly rebellious states to uphold the rule of law. As a result, during Reconstruction African-Americans voted in large numbers and elected numerous black representatives to Congress as well as state and local governments.

As part of the deal that ended Reconstruction after disputed presidential election of 1876, however, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South, leaving black citizens without protection. Former Confederates quickly seized control of legislatures. In order to intimidate blacks and reassert white supremacy, states and local governments enacted legislation to restrict every aspect of African-American life. These statutes mandated that whites and blacks be separated in public places, including restaurants, trains, schools, and other places. Blacks were forced to use inferior facilities and denied the level of service offered to whites while the patently false justification that these facilities were separate but of equal quality was frequently made. Other laws made it difficult, if not impossible, for blacks to vote. Throughout these years, African-Americans faced frequent intimidation and violence, but the Federal government did not intercede. In 1896, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was proclaimed constitutional when the US Supreme Court decided the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld state-sponsored segregation and discrimination.

By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South.



OBJECTIVE: Examine primary sources from two decades following the end of Reconstruction and explore how Americans—especially those in Southern states—undermined and reversed freedoms and rights that had been gained by formerly enslaved peoples.

STANDARDS: Related Thematic Learning Objectives (Focus of AP Exam Questions)

  • – NAT-2.0 Explain how interpretations of the Constitution and debates over rights, liberties, and definitions of citizenship have affected American values, politics, and society.
  • – POL-3.0 Explain how different beliefs about the federal government’s role in U.S. social and economic life have affected political debates and policies.

CCSS English Language Arts: Literacy

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

MATERIALS: Document Excerpts

Document One: “The Week, Unsigned editorial, The Nation,April 17, 1879

Document Two : Summary of the Week’s News: Domestic [about Danville Riots], unsigned article, The Nation, February 21, 1884

Document Three: Rigorous Ohio Policy Wanted, unsigned article, The Nation, January 24, 1889

Document Four: Negro Convicts in South Carolina, unsigned article, The Nation, April 4, 1889

Document Five: Letter to the Editor, Response to “Negro Convicts” [Document Four, above], by W.J. Alexander, The Nation April 18, 1889

Document Six: The Week, unsigned editorial [about Separate but Equal Regulations], The Nation, May 23, 1889

Document Seven: Lynching, unsigned article, The Nation, December 14, 1899


BEFORE reading, ask:

  • What rights did the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution seek to protect?
  • How did states in the former Confederacy respond to the end of Reconstruction?
  • What did the US Supreme Court rule in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson?
  • What were some of the hardships African-Americans had to endure following Reconstruction?

Have the class read the student-page content (including introduction and the eight documents). Encourage students to read and attempt to answer all scaffolding questions (“As You Read: Things to Look For”).

AFTER reading, ask:

  • Were you surprised by any information in the documents? Identify specific events or developments that you found surprising, and explain why.
  • How did the lives of African-Americans in the South change after the withdrawal of US troops?
  • What role did the US government play in protecting the rights of African-Americans post Reconstruction?
  • How did African-Americans respond to increasing discrimination following Reconstruction?

AS YOU READ: Things to Look For (Scaffolding questions also provided to students on their web pages)

  • Determine the author’s point of view. Is the document an article, a review, an editorial? What is its title? What is its tone? How does the author refer to freed slaves and African-Americans? Northern whites and Southerners? The role of states and that of the federal government?
  • Summarize and paraphrase each document. Picture the events as if they were happening today and put the passage into your own words.
  • Identify examples that illustrate the trends referred to in the W.E.B. Du Bois quote: freedom from slavery, the opportunities it created, and ways whites continued to suppress blacks.
  • Look for ways—both legal and illegal—the Southern states and whites limited the protections blacks were granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution.

Students are given a list of these words; only the teacher site includes the definitions.

Carpet-bag reign: The period in which Northerners (known as ‘carpetbaggers’) came to Southern states following the Civil War to promote Republican politics and/or seek political or financial gain.
Danville, Va., election riots: Violence that took place on November 3, 1883, in which white conservatives killed four African-Americans. The incumbent local government was racially integrated and had been popularly elected. However, the election conducted that day led to its replacement with an all-white government.
Extortionate: Priced excessively high
Incendiarism: The act of arson; inflammatory or provocative action
lien: The right to keep possession of property belonging to another person until a debt owed by that person is discharged.
Supine: Yielding, weak
Pernicious: Having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way.
Pusillanimous: Timid, a lack of courage
Washington, Booker T.: Influential African-American educator and civil rights leader; founder of the Tuskegee Institute and author of several books, including Up from Slavery. Washington (c. 1856-1915) believed that the best route for African-Americans to achieve equality was through career education, the practice of trades, and ownership of their own businesses. Some civil rights activists, including W. E. B. DuBois, criticized Washington for being “accommodative” of white supremacy.