American History as It Happened

MODULE FIVE: 1930-1945

DBQ Essay


Directions:The following question asks you to write a well-organized, concise essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents 1–8 and your knowledge of the period 1966-1990. The best answers will not only cite key pieces of evidence from the documents but also include outside knowledge of the period.

DBQ: Amid the catastrophic Great Depression and World War II, African-American life went through important changes between 1930 and 1945. Using the documents below and your outside knowledge, identify at least three significant developments that affected the African American community—negative and/or positive—and explore what they said about the possibility of progress in the future for America’s blacks.

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

THESIS: Four significant developments that occurred during the years 1930–1945 influenced America’s journey to on the path to racial equality—the artistry of the Harlem Renaissance, the economic stresses of the Great Depression, the injustices of the Scottsboro trial, and the active participation of African Americans in the American military in World War II.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document One: The Harlem Renaissance, which began in the 1920s, flourished in the thirties. Black authors were writing novels that vividly depicted the humanity and complexity of African American characters and culture—as in the Langston Hughes novel reviewed here. These portrayals, by giving authentic voice to their people, were making a case for blacks’ rightful place in American society and the American story.

Documents Two and Two(A): There were a number of trials of “the Scottsboro Boys,” and these trials sparked international outrage as Southern racial injustice was revealed in a harsh spotlight (and symbolized in the excerpt’s political cartoon). Deeply embedded racial hatred would continue to be a major impediment to civil rights progress in the decades to follow. However, the trials would also have the positive effect, in the end, of producing landmark Supreme Court decisions and the ultimate vindication of the innocent young men.

Document Three: The Depression hit black communities the hardest, as available work went first to white people. However, New Deal programs helped lift the desperate poor and provided opportunity. As noted in this excerpt, the black vote came to be seen as important, and politicians began paying attention. This proof of the value of the vote would reveal another tool that African Americans would attempt to use increasingly in coming decades.

Document Four: Unlike the Scottsboro Boys case, the particular peonage case described here was not significant in itself, but when multiplied by the thousands of similar voiceless victims of Southern injustice, it’s an example of the heavy ball and chain that dragged down progress in American race relations. It also illustrates how states manipulated, ignored, or enforced laws to the benefit of some of their citizens.

Document Five: Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, would come to be deemed one of the greatest works of American literature in the 20th century. Hurston, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, paved the way for many black women writers to come.

Document Six: Black people hoped that their contributions to World War II would usher in social progress at home, but they were largely disappointed. However, their increasing awareness of the need to exert group pressure, and their rising expectations and determination for equality would be a driving force for progress in the future.

Document Seven: Because black Americans mobilized for World War II and served with distinction, new light was shed on the United States’ “Negro problem,” though neither the military nor the government dealt with it in any meaningful way during the war years. However, the uplifting change in “the mentality of the American Negro” and the confidence and pride gained by black soldiers added urgency, and pointed the way forward to future progress that would bear fruit in the 1950s and 1960s.

Document Eight: Supreme Court decisions in 1938 and 1940, forcing Missouri universities to admit black students, were transformative events that offered a peek at the possibility of greater changes to come in American law and life. The meaning of these decisions made it clear that things were changing. As the Raleigh, Missouri, News-Observer put it, speaking to its white readership, “Time has moved under our feet.”

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

  • Two back-to-back global crises, the economic depression and the war, had significant and long-lasting effects on black Americans. (3, 6, 7)
  • African American determination to achieve personal enrichment and racial equality reached new heights during this period. (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8)
  • Deeply entrenched racism, particularly in the South, was the major, colossal obstruction to social progress on race relations. (2, 4, 6, 7, 8)
  • The Southern justice system was forcefully rigged against black men. (2, 4)
  • WWII revealed the “conflict of ideologies” represented by the United States into the glare of international and domestic attention. (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.