New Teaching Activity: From Dred Scott to the Civil Rights Act of 1875

Today’s post comes from Anna Lewis, social media intern in the Education and Public Programs division, based on the DocsTeach activity created by Joel Walker, education specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta.

In our newest activity on—our online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives—students will learn how rights for African-Americans changed quickly from the Dred Scott decision to the Civil Rights Act of 1875. From Dred Scott to the Civil Rights Act of 1875: Eighteen Years of Change challenges students to examine primary sources relating to the historical events that led to this shift and explain the relationships between them.In just 18 years (1857–1875), African-Americans went from enslavement and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling concluding that they were not citizens and were not entitled to the protection of the Federal government (Dred Scott decision), to becoming American citizens with voting rights and  access to public transportation, lodging, and other facilities (the Civil Rights Act of 1875).How did this happen? Look at the documents and the events they represent. In each text box, write a short description explaining the cause-and-effect or other relationship between the events.

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that African-Americans were not citizens of the United States. Yet within 18 years, Black Americans would not only have citizenship, but would be guaranteed the right to vote and equal access to transportation, housing, and other facilities by the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Although many of these rights would be lost through the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883, when the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was found unconstitutional, and in 1896, when the Plessy v.Ferguson ruling established the “separate but equal” doctrine, these gains made in the 1860s and 1870s were foundational to the Civil Rights progress of the 20th century.

We suggest teaching with this activity toward the end of a Civil War and Reconstruction unit. Students should know the basic timeline of events from just before the Civil War through just before the end of Reconstruction. Students in grades 10–12 can work individually or in small groups. Approximate time needed is 30 minutes. Find the activity and teaching instructions in the DocsTeach Activities section under era: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877), or directly at Students can access the activity directly at

To begin, ask students to recall the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 and its conclusion: that African-Americans were not citizens and that the Federal Government could not prevent slavery from being taken into the territories. Then have them consider the rights the Federal Government granted African-Americans by 1875: citizenship, the right to vote, equal access to public facilities.

Direct students to the online activity to identify and examine the primary sources, and then explain the connection between each document and the next in the appropriate connecting text box. The connection may be cause-and-effect, or maybe just sequential.

Screen Shot of Sumner Civil Rights Bill in DocsTeach Activity
The Sumner Civil Rights Bill, signed into law and known as the the Civil Rights Act of 1875, later declared unconstitutional (from the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives)

The activity will encourage classroom discussion about the reactions to these changes in civil rights for African-Americans. The quick pace was not well-received by many in the country. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. And by the 1890s, many Southern states had either re-written or changed their state constitutions with unique ways to deny African-Americans the right to vote.

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