Today’s post comes from social studies teacher Andrew Zetts, who was an education intern at the National Archives at Philadelphia during the summer of 2017.
As a United States history teacher whose curriculum covers Reconstruction to the present day, I often find myself fumbling and rushing through the years of history immediately following the Civil War. The beginning of any school year is hectic—there are seating arrangements to fuss over, new names to learn, and the daunting task of quickly making a dent in the enormous curriculum—and I often struggle to give the Reconstruction unit its due diligence.1
But during my summer internship with the National Archives in Philadelphia, I was able to rediscover the importance of this period of American history and reconfigure it as a cornerstone in my approach to teaching my entire United States history curriculum.
Delving deeply into Reconstruction with my U.S. history classes this school year allowed me to introduce the mechanisms of government that influenced the tension between continuity and change in the United States for years to come. With debates over equal citizenship, reconfigurations of constitutional boundaries, and the agency of citizens exercised in public and private arenas, my Reconstruction unit now allows my students to see more accurately how history unfolds and how some debates in our history have recurred in every generation.
A major part of the change in my perception of Reconstruction came from the time I spent reading through primary source documents made available on the National Archives’ online teaching resource, DocsTeach. The sources I accessed on DocsTeach provided me with countless historical voices I could use to create activities for my students. By the end of my summer internship, I made three activities on DocsTeach which are all related to Reconstruction and are now available for you to use!
Students engage with the intersection of race and gender in this activity. It follows Lola Houck, an African American woman from Texas, who was brutally harassed on the railroad when trying to visit her family. By interacting with her court testimony, students are enlightened about the different racial and gender norms that someone like Lola Houck had to be mindful of as she engaged in the post-War South.
This activity has students evaluate the hope and frustrations that Reconstruction carried with it. Students read the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided African American citizens the ability to take businesses to federal court if they were denied services based on their race. Students then see how this legislation impacted Fields Cook, an African American minister visiting Philadelphia. In the end, students see how courts’ different interpretations of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 impacted how the law was enforced.
The primary focus of this activity is for students to review the sequence and significance of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. It also has students consider the male-centricity of the amendments from the Reconstruction Era by having them read a proposal for a Sixteenth Amendment that will provide women with the right to vote.
The beauty of DocsTeach is that if you would like to use any of these activities, you can — and you can also modify them to fit your class’s particular needs.