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        The Jim Crow Years: People Who Made a Difference

        In this lesson, students identify individuals who distinguished themselves and made contributions to their communities during the Jim Crow era.

        Lesson Summary


        The PBS series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow tells much of the history of Jim Crow through the stories of several courageous individuals. In this unit students choose individuals highlighted in the series, research their backgrounds, and discuss their contributions to the struggle against Jim Crow.


        Students will:

        • identify some of the key figures in the struggle against Jim Crow;
        • analyze how individual actions can affect the course of history;
        • evaluate how personal actions are constrained by larger social or historical conditions.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        Five 45-minute class periods (portions may be assigned as homework)

        Media Resources


        For each student:

        People Who Made a Difference - Video Questions

        Suggested Bibliography

        Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, editors. Africana: The Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999)

        Kenneth Estell, editor. The African-American Almanac (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994)

        Jack Salzman, Greg Robinson, editors. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996)

        Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, editors. Encarta Africana (CD-ROM), (Redmond, Wash.: Microsoft Corp., 1999)

        Web Sites

        The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

        African American World

        Black Voices

        The Lesson


        One 45-minute class period

        1. Begin by writing "People Who Made a Difference" at the top of the board. Below that, create four columns with the following headings:

        • Name
        • Accomplishment
        • Occupation
        • Personality Traits

        2. Ask students to give examples of people whose actions have helped to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In addition to well-known public figures, encourage students to give examples of less-known people such as family members, friends and members of their community. Ask how people can make a difference in small ways, ways that might not attract much public attention.

        3. As students make suggestions, enter the appropriate information about these individuals in the four columns. When students have given a sufficient number of examples, say 10 or 12, generalize the discussion by having students consider broader questions:

        • What sorts of experiences made these people take the paths they took?
        • What sorts of opposition did they face?
        • Was their particular occupation related to the work they did for social change and if so, how?
        • Do these people have traits in common?
        • What occupations, in addition to the ones in the examples on the board, attract people who are interested in effecting social change? (Answers might include political, religious, labor, legal, science, medical and educational occupations.)
        • What personality traits, in addition to the ones already noted, are useful for people trying to accomplish social change?

        4. Add the additional occupations and traits to the appropriate columns on the board.

        5.Finally, ask students to respond to the following questions:

        • Is there a downside to the traits that make these people leaders for social change? For example, can "courageousness" become "recklessness," or "stubbornness" lead to "inflexibility?"
        • Are these personality traits ones that are encouraged or discouraged in our schools and in our popular culture?
        • Does our culture seem to celebrate people who work for the betterment of others or does it celebrate what people accomplish for themselves?

        Learning Activity

        Two 45-minute class periods (students can also work on their profiles for homework)

        1. Tell students that they are going to create two to three-page profiles of individuals who made a difference in the struggle to end Jim Crow.

        2. Assign each student one person from the following list. This should be done prior to viewing the assigned video segments from The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.

        • Benjamin "Pap" Singleton (1809-1892)
        • Isaiah Montgomery (1847-1924)
        • Lucy Laney (1854-1933)
        • Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
        • Ida B. Wells. (1862-1931).
        • W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963)
        • Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883-1961)
        • Ned Cobb (1885-1973)
        • Walter White (1893-1955)
        • Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950)
        • Barbara Johns (1935-1986)

        3. Distribute the People Who Made a Difference - Video Questions handout. Have students watch the video segment(s) associated with the person they've been assigned. (Note that the video segment on The Crisis focuses on W. E. B. Du Bois.) Ask students to answer the questions on the handout as they relate to their assigned figure.

        4. Having viewed the video and answered questions related to their particular subjects, your students should do further research. Direct them to the websites listed below and ask that they include at least one print resource in their research. Have them find a photograph of their person and import it into their document.

        Culminating Activity

        Two 45-minute class periods (portions of this activity can be assigned as homework)

        1. Let students know that this lesson culminates in class presentations in which all students who have worked on a specific individual present their findings to the class.

        2. Have students who have worked on the same individual meet together and discuss their subjects; give them five or ten minutes to read each others' profiles.

        3. Have students introduce their individuals to the entire class, from the earliest in history to the most recent (refer to the sequence listed above). If it can be arranged, have images of the various individuals displayed for these presentations.

        4. Before the next group presents their report, ask them to tell the class how their individual might have responded to the previous individual -- would their individual have approved or disapproved of the actions and accomplishments of that person?

        5. Following the presentations, ask students to hand in their profiles.

        Community Connections

        1. Develop a project for your community called “People Who Made a Difference.” Have your students, working in groups of two or three, interview community members who have helped to improve their communities either on their own or through the creation of community organizations. (These might include local cultural centers, health centers, legal aid centers, environmental action groups, or other non-profit organizations.) The selection of interview subjects should be made by students, subject to the advice and approval of the teacher. Once subjects have been selected, students should make arrangements to interview these community leaders, keeping in mind some of the questions discussed in the lesson plans. For example, students may wish to find out:

        • How long have they been working on this project?
        • What experiences prompted these people to become involved in their project?
        • What opposition or difficulties did they face? What successes and setbacks have they had?
        • What personality traits have aided them in their community work?
        • To whom did these people look for inspiration?

        2. Following their interviews, students will write short biographical profiles. You may wish to post these community profiles on your school or classroom website, along with digital photographs of the interviewees.


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