American History as It Happened

MODULE THREE: 1900-1919

DBQ Essay


Directions:The following prompt asks you to write a well-organized, concise essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents 1 through 8 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: More than four decades after the Civil War ended, African Americans struggled as they encountered numerous obstacles to their advancement. Using the documents below and your knowledge of outside events, describe at least three of those obstacles and assess how serious a threat they were to African American prosperity.

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

THESIS: In the first two decades of the 20th century, African Americans faced enormous obstacles in their struggle to succeed. Among the most serious factors that they had to overcome were oppressive legal discrimination; deprivation of political representation and power; unfair competition for employment because of racism among labor unions and workers (among other reasons); frequent extralegal threats to their lives; and disagreement among African American leaders about the best tactics and strategy to use in order to aid black advancement.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document One: African Americans hoping to advance in the face of discrimination and oppression had to choose between conflicting advice from community leaders.

Document Two: Despite some positive developments, African Americans were locked in an iron caste that restricted not only their advancement (Jim Crow laws) but also threatened their lives (random, fatal, unpunished anti-black violence).

Document Three:The black community was disadvantaged by white America’s unwillingness to accept them as full-fledged citizens. Unlike white Americans, blacks required an ‘interpreter,’ someone required to plead “for harmony, mutual respect, and justice.”

Document Four: “Labor unions—organizations established to benefit working men—nonetheless discriminated against African American workers. The national leader of the largest American labor union, Samuel Gompers, was not alone in being unwelcoming to blacks: “[H]is attitude reflects, in the main, that of unions throughout the country. Few welcome the negro with open arms.”

Document Five: Segregation hobbled African American attempts to be treated equally, forcing them to live apart, usually in substandard housing.

Document Six: Whites, especially but not exclusively in the South, were willing to employ extreme tactics to keep blacks down.

Document Seven: African Americans who struggled to live a free, responsible life found themselves constrained not only by extralegal violence but also by law and legislation.

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

  • Oppressive laws denigrated black attempts to lead productive lives: 2, 5, 7
  • Black political power was undermined to hamper black advancement: 2, 5, 7
  • African Americans continually faced obstacles to fair competition: 2, 3, 4, 5, 7
  • Blacks had to contend with frequent threats to their physical safety: 2, 6, 7
  • Lack of consensus on the best strategy for advancement made for uncertainty: 1, 3, 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.