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New Liberties and New Threats During Reconstruction

This activity features differentiation and scaffolding to help students understand the new social freedoms and new threats to the families of freedmen during Reconstruction. Students work in heterogeneous skill-level groups to analyze several primary sources and prepare to write a paragraph about freedmen's new social freedoms. The activity in the lesson is framed for several consecutive 45-minute lessons, but could be adapted to meet the teacher's needs. The activity features documents from HERB that have been edited for different skill levels; the edited documents are including in the attached PDF "New Liberties and New Threats Worksheet." New York City high school teachers Arthur Everett and Samantha Schoeller created this activity.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to describe the impact of new freedoms during Reconstruction on African-American families.

  • Students will be able to describe how white backlash to African Americans' new freedoms threatened black families.  

  • Students will analyze primary sources to determine the changes and continuities in African-American life during Reconstruction.  

Instructions

Step 1: Ask students to describe the family unit of a slave on a southern plantation.  Write the students' responses on the board in a T-chart to refer back to later (one side labeled "Families Under Slavery" and one side labeled "Families During Reconstruction.")  You may prompt students to focus on: 

  • Living arrangements

  • Personal relationships within the family: men and women, parents and children, fathers and mothers

  • Who is in charge of: the household, the children, resources/money, farming, and where family members live? 

Step 2: Group jigsaw on new social freedoms gained and exercised by Freedmen during Reconstruction 

Materials needed (see New Liberties and New Threats worksheet): 

  • Marriage of a Colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen’s Bureau [low-skill level]

  • Louis Hughes document on finding his mother and sister-in-law [mid-skill level]

  • Anna Maria Coffee interview for the Works Progress Administration Ex-Slaves Narrative project [mid-skill level]

  • A Freedman seeks to reunite his family [high-skill level]

Organize students into groups of four, grouped heterogeneously by skill level.  Assign each student in the group a document according to his skill level.  Tell students that each student in the group will be responsible for reading and viewing that document, answering comprehension questions about it, and sharing the learned information and ideas in the document with his fellow group members.  Allow students time to complete their worksheets.  

Step 3: Once students complete their group work, return to the T-chart and fill in a few points about how families during Reconstruction changed.  Then ask the entire class to predict

  • How might these new social freedoms threaten the social order of the pre-Civil War South? 

  • Why might these new social freedoms have been perceived as so threatening? 

  • Who might have considered them threatening? 

You may prompt students to focus on: 

  • Farmer who owns land can no longer divide families of freedmen who work land: how does that change his labor force? 

  • If families can stick together, how does that make the freedmen less vulnerable to the farmers’ terms of employment? 

  • How does a marriage license have power as a written document? What other legal documents previously defined African Americans? What is different between a marriage license and a bill of sale? 

Step 4: Tell class that now they will look at the ways these new social freedoms were challenged.  Project "A Republican Scarecrow Fails to Staunch Southern Violence."  Ask students as whole class discussion: 

  • Describe the image: list everything you see including people, objects, words, shades, clothing, buildings, etc.

  • Where are the Freedmen in this image? How do you know? Use evidence from the image to support your answer.

  • Are they being challenged in any way? By whom? How do you know? Use evidence to support your answer.

  • Why do you think this family is being attacked? Explain. Use evidence from the image to support your answer.

  • Based on this image: How were new social freedoms for freed African Americans challenged during Reconstruction?

Step 5: Document-Based Questions about challenges to Freedmen’s new social freedoms 

Materials needed: 

  • Black Codes Restrict Newly Won Freedoms: Labor and Contracts: GA/NC [low-skill level]

  • Black Codes Restrict Newly Won Freedoms: Interracial Marriage [mid-skill level]

  • Black Codes Restrict Newly Won Freedoms: Labor and Contracts: AL [mid-skill level]

  • A South Carolina Landowner Attempts to Re-enslave a Free Child [high-skill level]

Students stay in their groups of four, grouped heterogeneously by skill level.  Give each student in the group all four documents and tell them they will be responsible for reading and viewing those documents and answering the scaffolding question about each one.  Students may work collaboratively or in a jig-saw to break-down and analyze the documents, but each must answer the scaffolding question on his own handout. 

Step 6: Instruct students to write a paragraph-length analysis with specific document evidence and outside information answering the question: How were new social freedoms for freed African Americans challenged during Reconstruction?

  • Students stay in their groups of four, grouped heterogeneously by skill level.

  • Students should use the scaffolding question answers from Step 5 to construct a paragraph together which answers the question: How were new social freedoms for freed African Americans challenged during Reconstruction? 

Paragraphs should 

  • Cite three of the five documents from Steps 4 and/or 5 that explain how new social freedoms were challenged.  

  • Include outside information from Step 2 explaining new social freedoms exercised.

Remind students to refer to the writing guidelines on their worksheet Summary.

Step 7: (Optional) Have students write their paragraphs on transparencies and present [read] them to the class. Students receive feedback from the classmates who are called upon by the teacher to tell one strength, one weakness and one suggestion for improvement about the written paragraph each group writes.

Historical Context

The slave family was very vulnerable to the whims of masters: family members could be sold away at any time; masters, not parents, told children what to do; punishment was meted out by the master, not the parent. Slave marriages were not legally recognized. The first priority for many freedmen during Reconstruction was to reconstruct their families and exercise the new social freedoms that came with Reconstruction.  

These new liberties during Reconstruction led quickly to a backlash in the South at the state and local level of government and society. The backlash of the Black Codes set up new challenges to freedmen that instituted a pattern of governance regarding marriage and family law which rolled back the more egalitarian ideals of Reconstruction.

This set of lessons could connect to a larger unit about freedmen’s new social, political and economic freedoms that were challenged during Reconstruction. The unit would culminate in a five-paragraph long document-based essay asking students to consider the social, economic and political changes and impacts of Reconstruction. The purpose of this lesson, as tied to that larger unit goal, is to expose students to the relevant outside information about social freedoms and challenges that these documents depict. Students will leave this lesson having practiced writing one of the three body paragraphs of this larger assessment.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | Arthur Everett, Laura Garrity, and Samantha Schoeller
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | Arthur Everett, Laura Garrity, and Samantha Schoeller, “New Liberties and New Threats During Reconstruction,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed January 19, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1557.

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