American History as It Happened

MODULE THREE: 1900-1919

An African-American family leaving Florida during the Great Depression. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

In this module, you and your students will explore the oppression, advances, and controversies that rippled through the African-American community between the turn of the 20th century and the end of the Great War in 1918.

This era encompassed ever-more-restrictive discrimination embodied in Jim Crow laws and a campaign to strip African-American men of their voting rights; a great migration of hundreds of thousands of rural Southern blacks to the industrial north; intensifying threats of lynching and other forms of anti-black violence; and passionate, ongoing discussions among African-Americans about the best strategy to liberate blacks from their troubled place in American society to greater affluence and success.

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 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: More than four decades after the Civil War ended, African-Americans struggled as they encountered numerous obstacles to politcal, economic and social 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 success.


PERIOD SUMMARY: In 1900, ninety percent of African-Americans, nearly eight million people, lived in the the rural South. Across that region, increasingly harsh Jim Crow laws segregated African-Americans from whites and restricted them to inferior facilities in public spaces, educational institutions, and modes of transport. During this period, most southern states took active steps to disfranchise black voters, curtailing their right to vote through grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests.

By 1920, due to the upheaval known as “The Great Migration,” over half a million African-Americans had left the South for what they hoped would be greater opportunity in the industrial North and Western states. There, however, blacks found themselves in competition with millions of recently arrived white immigrants for housing and jobs. These colliding migrations led to increased racial tension and outbreaks of violence. At the same time, during the Great Migration, African-Americans began to build a new place in public life, actively confronting racial prejudice as well as economic, political and social challenges to create a black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the presidency of the US—the first southerner elected president since 1848. Despite initial hopes that Wilson would support black advancement, in his eight years in office, Wilson oversaw segregation of the federal government and supported numerous anti-black measures.

The most famous African-American of the time was Booker T. Washington. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, Washington became a successful educator, best-selling author, and acclaimed orator. Though his stature and achievements were undeniable, Washington’s strategies—frequently seeking compromise and accommodation with white society—led many African-American leaders to disdain him, especially for his reluctance to speak out for black civil rights. One of his most prominent critics was author and activist W.E.B. DuBois with whom he staged numerous debates over the best path for black advancement in the US.

Despite the bleakness of the era—with numerous race riots across the US and more than 1,000 lynchings between 1900 and 1920—there was progress: Growing numbers of African-Americans became literate, found work and prospered. And in 1909, a group of black and white leaders founded an organization that was to be crucial in the civil rights battles to come—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).



OBJECTIVE: Review primary documents describing the political and social landscape facing African-Americans in the first two decades of the 20th century. Challenge students to identify key issues of the period and develop an argument enumerating those issues.

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 Souls of Black Folk by W.E. Burghardt Du Bois,” unsigned book review, The Nation, June 3, 1903

Document Two : “The Negro Problem in Foreign Eyes,” unsigned article, The Nation, February 18, The Nation, February 18, 1909

Document Three: “Booker T. Washington’s Greatest Service,” unsigned article, The Nation, December 9, 1909

Document Four: “The Negro and the Unions,” unsigned article [written by Oswald Garrison Villard], The Nation, December 1, 1910

Document Five: “The Week” unsigned article [Baltimore real estate segregation], The Nation October 2, 1913

Document Six: The Casuistry of Lynch Law” by Herbert L. Stewart, The Nation, August 24, 1916

Document Seven: “The Week,” unsigned article [race riots in East St. Louis], The Nation , The Nation, July 12, 1917


BEFORE reading, ask:

  • What were some major American events of this time period? (replies might include: Wright Brothers successful airplane flight in 1903; San Francisco earthquake in 1906; mass immigration from Europe; Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson presidencies; US entry into World War I in 1917)
  • Where did the majority of African-Americans live at the turn of the 20th century?
  • Who were nationally known leaders of the black community during this period?
  • What differences existed in the status of African-Americans in the North and South of the US?

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

AFTER reading, ask:

  • What were the leading issues for African-Americans during this period?
  • How did the perspectives of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois differ on the strategy for African-American progress in 20th century America?
  • How significant was the migration of large numbers of black Americans from the South to the North? What sorts of reactions did the migration provoke?
  • Were you surprised by any information in the documents? Identify specific events or developments that you found surprising, and explain why.

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

  • Examine each excerpt for point of view. Is the document a report, a review, an editorial? Identify how the format and/or writer’s purpose affects the content.
  • Keep in mind when the excerpts were published. Was anything significant happening at the time? If so, how might those events have affected what was being written?
  • Search for themes across the documents. Do issues recur at different times during this period? If so, do the issues change over time?
  • Evaluate the importance of each issue being explored. What are the key effects of the issue? How significant was it in the overall picture?

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

Bogey: a source of fear, perplexity, or harassment
Disfranchising laws: legislation passed in the early 20th century by Southern states. These laws were aimed at preventing black citizens from registering to vote as well as from voting.
East St. Louis riots of 1917: civil disturbances that erupted in this small Illinois city, directly across the Mississippi river from St. Louis, MO. White workers, many of them European immigrants involved in strikes and labor disputes, reacted with anger towards newly arrived black Southern migrants who were competing with them for jobs. In early July, white mobs assaulted hundreds of black men, women, and children, and dozens were killed.
Grandfather clauses: provisions of laws passed in several Southern states between 1895 and 1910 that ensured the voting rights of individuals whose ancestors had been eligible to vote prior to 1867. Because African-Americans were not granted the vote until the 15th amendment was passed in 1870, these ‘clauses’ assisted the states in their effort to restrict black voting while not limiting white ballots.
Jim Crow: name given to laws, statutes, and regulations throughout the Southern states that made discrimination against blacks legal.
John Brown: a white abolitionist who lived from 1800-1859 and whose violent actions aimed at freeing slaves and ending slavery resulted in his being executed by the federal government
Springfield riot of 1908: a violent outbreak in 1908 incited by reports of the rape of a white woman by African-Americans. A mob of 5,000 white people attacked black neighborhoods, black businesses, and black citizens on the streets of Abraham Lincoln’s home town. The Illinois state militia had to be called out to end the rioting.
Tuskegee: Shorthand name for the Tuskegee Institute, a school founded and run by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1881 – 1915