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        Fighting Jim Crow in the Schools

        In this lesson students map the events in the fight for education for African Americans from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights movement. They will see different points of view of education from such notable people as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Dubois.

        Lesson Summary


        During the Jim Crow era, education was an important component of the aspirations of African Americans. Many prominent African American leaders were nationally recognized educators, and their theories of education often mirrored their strategies in dealing with Jim Crow. In this unit students consider the role education played in the struggle against Jim Crow and learn that many of the key battles to overturn Jim Crow centered on equal access to education. In a culminating activity, students debate the purpose of education taking on the conflicting philosophies of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T.Washington.


        Students will:

        • identify some of the key events in the struggle against Jim Crow;
        • recognize how individual actions can affect the course of history;
        • enhance understanding and draw conclusions from the study of primary documents;
        • understand the importance of education in African American culture and history.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        Up to five 45-minute class periods (portions may be assigned as homework)

        Media Resources


        Fighting Jim Crow in the Schools - Discussion Questions

        Make copies and distribute to each group or individual students as appropriate.

        Web Sites

        Booker T. Washington, “Industrial Education is the Solution," 1896

        W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth," from “The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of Today”(New York, 1903), [excerpts]

        These two documents are from the website of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.

        A Century of Segregation Timeline

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introductory Activity

        25-30 minutes

        1. Explain to students that during the Jim Crow era, many African Americans struggled to define the purpose of education. Booker T. Washington stressed vocational over cultural education, stating that "there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem." On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois insisted that "the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men."

        2. Begin a discussion on the purpose of education by asking the class "What is education for?” Ask students to consider the following propositions:

        • To learn basic skills that will allow us to get jobs?
        • To become "productive members of society?"
        • To become good citizens?
        • To instill certain moral and social values?

        3. Compile a list of the students’ responses and have the class rate them in importance. Save this list, as you will return to it in the culminating activity.

        Part II: Learning Activity

        Two 45-minute class periods

        1. The video segments from The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow on which the students will be focusing present the topics of the Holtzclaw family (post- Civil War), Booker T. Washington (1880s to 1900s), Lucy Laney (1870s and 1880s), Charlotte Hawkins Brown's Palmer Institute (1900s), the Fisk University student strike (1924), and the battle over segregated schools in Farmville, Virginia (1950s). Have students access the Century of Segregation Timeline on The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website so they can place these events in the history of Jim Crow.

        2. Divide students into groups of four or five. Give each student a copy of the Fighting Jim Crow in the Schools - Discussion Questions handout.

        3. Tell students they are going to watch a series of video segments about the education of African Americans during the years of Jim Crow. Ask them to review the questions on the handout before watching each video and to take notes while they watch the segment. Following each segment, give students time to discuss their responses to the questions within their groups. Play the segments in the order presented on the handout.

        4. Discuss the following questions with the entire class. As different student groups respond, have them refer to their notes and the specific cases studied and talked about in the video segments.  

        • Why has education played such a significant role in the history of African Americans? How has education played an important role for other groups? (For example, immigrants, women, the poor.)
        • What was the role of students in the fight against Jim Crow?
        • One Farmville student recalls that "we had the idealism of American young people about America." In what way do the student strikes at Fisk University and Moton High School represent American idealism at its best? Are young people as a rule more idealistic than their parents?

        Part III: Culminating Activity

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

        One of the greatest educational debates among African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century was between those who supported Booker T. Washington's philosophy of industrial education and those who supported the "Talented Tenth" philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois. In this culminating activity students identify and debate the basic ideas behind these differing educational philosophies.

        1. Divide students into two groups. One group will read Booker T. Washington's essay "Industrial Education is the Solution" and the other group will read "The Talented Tenth," by W.E.B. Du Bois. The following are study questions to guide both groups in their reading (both online articles have numbered paragraphs):

        Booker T. Washington, "Industrial Education is the Solution"

        • According to paragraphs 1 and 2, how has Tuskegee Institute transformed life for black people in and around the Institute?
        • What examples does Washington give in paragraphs 3 through 5 of "learning by doing?" What skills have people learned?
        • In paragraph 6, what does Washington have to say about the value of manual labor? How is Tuskegee training people to participate in Southern society?

        W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth"

        • According to Du Bois, what is the greater purpose of education? (See especially paragraphs 1 through 3 and paragraph 9.)
        • Is Du Bois’ "Talented Tenth" an elitist idea? How are the other nine-tenths of the population to benefit from this? (See paragraphs 5 through 7.)
        • What criticism of vocational education does Du Bois offer? (See paragraphs 12 through 15.)
        •  How will whites as well as blacks benefit from the educational system Du Bois recommends?

        2. Have the two groups of students debate the question "What is the purpose of education?" Have both groups begin with a statement of their position, each group adopting the position taken by the author of the paper they read. Propose the following questions to each group:

        • How would your model of education benefit African Americans?
        • What would your model of education have done to improve the political position of African Americans living under Jim Crow?

        3. Invite your students to revisit the list regarding the purpose of education that they generated during the Introductory Activity.

        • What is the purpose of education? Are there any points that you believe should be added to the initial list? Would you still rate your responses in the same order?
        • Why was equal access to equal education such an important goal of the Civil Rights movement? 


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