American History as It Happened

MODULE FOUR: 1919-1929

DBQ Essay

DBQ: In the 1920s, Americans had widely differing opinions about the proper status of African-Americans in US society. Discuss those contrasting ideas, and demonstrate ways in which they were expressed during the decade.

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

THESIS: Although many white Americans—especially, but not exclusively, Southerners—felt that black people should accept an inferior place in US society, millions of African-Americans fought against that idea. In creative and hardworking ways, black Americans struggled to achieve success and the rights they believed they deserved.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document 1/McKay: African-Americans are threatened by the “mad dogs” of white racist lynch mobs and have every right to defend their lives against these mobs.

Document 2/Adams: African-Americans made sacrifices for our nation in World War I (even losing their lives, as this family’s son did), and they have contributed to our society, so they deserve the same rights as all other Americans. However, many white Americans—including residents of this northern suburb—don’t agree.

Document 3/White: Even as African-Americans succeed, they remain vulnerable to envy and attacks by Caucasian Americans. When those attacks occur, neither state nor federal government offers help or protection.

Document 4/De Silver: Voting by African-Americans is a threat to white supremacy. Using their supposed fear of “lawlessness” by blacks as an excuse, white racists/KKK members work to intimidate African-American voters.

Document 5/Pickens: Jim Crow laws have no public-safety or health purpose; they exist only to break the spirit and enforce the inferior position in American society of African-Americans.

Document 5a/Stone: Jim Crow laws are essential to the peace and safety of the region.

Document 6/Du Bois: African-Americans are attending college and earning degrees in increasing numbers, but those numbers (and their successes) are depressed by the lack of support and encouragement from white society.

Document 7/Hughes: African-American culture expresses something fresh and important, and different from white US culture. Some blacks are threatened by this diversity, as are some whites. But African-American culture is diverse and valuable and it needs to—and will—flourish regardless.

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

  • African-Americans fought back against racist laws and attitudes (1, 6, 7)
  • African-Americans often complied with—but resented and rejected—laws that denied them their rights (3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Some white Americans recognized the injustice of the situation (2, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Some white Americans firmly believed they had to act to reinforce belief in white superiority and black inferiority (3, 4, 5a)












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.