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        Living with Jim Crow

        This lesson examines how the history of Jim Crow can be understood through the stories of individuals while still recounting a larger historical narrative. Students will learn the effect of Jim Crow on African Americans.  People reviewed include Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington.

        Lesson Summary


        The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow tells the history of Jim Crow through the lives of individuals who suffered from and sometimes triumphed over their circumstances. Individual experiences are often used to tell the history of a people. This unit examines the way in which history can be understood through the stories of individuals, stories that are specific to each individual and yet recount a larger historical narrative. Students relate individual stories of Jim Crow to the larger historical impact Jim Crow practices had upon African Americans. As a culminating activity, they perform a “Living Newspaper” play on Jim Crow in the 1930’s.


        Students will:

        • draw historical conclusions from the stories of individuals affected by Jim Crow;
        • distinguish between the specific and the general in historical accounts;
        • construct a historical narrative based on specific episodes and general historical accounts.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

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

        Media Resources


        Web Sites

        "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch," Richard Wright

        Richard Wright expanded this autobiographical essay, written while he was in the Federal Writers Project, into his novel Black Boy.

        "Southern Journey," Emanuel H. Demby

        In this 1936 essay, a New York City high school student recounts his summer spent in the South.

        Websites for Culminating Activity

        Written Resources:

        American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

        These typescript interviews from the Federal Writers' Folklore Project offer the recollections of Americans from many walks of life. Use the site's search engine to find stories of African Americans.

        New Deal Network Document Collection

        This is a subject index to New Deal Network documents concerning African Americans.

        The Reflector: An African American Newspaper Depicting African-American Life in Charlottesville, Virginia, During the Jim Crow Era

        This University of Virginia Web site includes dozens of newspaper articles published in The Reflector during the 1930s.

        The Virginia Center for Digital History

        The Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH) advances historical scholarship and facilitates active dialog between scholars, researchers and educators in the digital age.

        Race and Place

        Race and Place is an archive from the Virginia Center for Digital History about the racial segregation laws, or the 'Jim Crow' laws from the late 1880s until the mid-twentieth century.

        Visual Resources:

        The Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs

        This site contains images of African American schools, school grounds, and classrooms from the Jim Crow era.

        America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945

        This Library of Congress American Memory collection includes 1,600 color and 55,0000 black and white photographs of rural and small-town America during the late 1930s. The index is organized geographically and by subject.

        Audio Resources:

        "Now What a Time": Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943

        An American Memory project consisting of approximately one hundred sound recordings, primarily blues and gospel songs, and related documentation from the folk festival at Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University), Fort Valley, Georgia.

        John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip Collection

        This collection includes 686 sound recordings, as well as photographic prints, documenting folksingers and folksongs discovered on a three-month trip through eight Southern states: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia.

        Red Hot Jazz

        This site includes sound files for many early jazz recordings.

        The Lesson

        Learning Activity

        One 45-minute class period

        1. Tell students they will be watching a series of video segments that show how various individuals experienced life under Jim Crow. Begin by distributing the Living with Jim Crow - Video Questions handout to each student.

        2. Prior to watching each segment, have students review the associated set of questions. Remind students to take careful notes while watching. After the video, students share their responses and discuss what they have seen. Students should watch the videos in the order presented on the handout.

        3.Once students have seen the three videos and taken careful notes, divide them into small groups for a discussion on the topics below. Allow 15-20 minutes for the discussion.

        • How does the anecdotal information about specific events or individuals enhance our understanding of the history of this era? (It personalizes the history of Jim Crow; it makes it easier to relate to and understand how life was experienced under Jim Crow.)
        • How do we know that these personal stories reflect more than just the isolated experiences of the individuals treated in the documentary? (The personal stories are bolstered with statistics; historians provide contextual information; certain aspects of people's experiences recur frequently throughout the documentary.)

        4. Ask each group to share their answers in a whole-group discussion.

        Learning Activity

        One 45-minute class period (this activity may also be assigned as homework)

        1. Ask students to return to their small groups and distribute copies of the essays The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch by Richard Wright and Southern Journey by Emanuel H. Demby. Richard Wright's autobiographical essay, written while he was in the Federal Writers Project, later became his novel Black Boy. The Emanuel H. Demby essay was written in 1936 by a white high school student from New York City who spent a summer visiting the South. Ask students to consider the following questions while reading through the two essays:

        • What specific episodes in these essays illustrate what Richard Wright calls "the Ethics of Living Jim Crow?"
        • How do Richard Wright's experiences of the South differ from Emanuel Demby's? What can we learn from both of these accounts?

        2. After giving students approximately 20 minutes to read and discuss the two essays, bring the class together to discuss the preceding questions.

        Culminating Activity/Assessment

        Three 45-minute class periods

        1. Explain to students that during the 1930s, the government's Federal Theater Project created a form of documentary theater called "Living Newspapers." An important issue of the day would be chosen, research on the subject would be undertaken, and a play would be created dramatizing the subject. The subject matter for Living Newspapers included housing, agriculture, public health, the power industry, and the labor movement. Living Newspapers were multimedia events, as well, utilizing live and recorded music, photographic images, and loudspeakers. (The script for the Living Newspaper "Power" is online here.)

        2. Tell students that over the next three days they will develop and perform a Living Newspaper on Jim Crow in the 1930s using documentary resources found on the Internet.

        Day One

        1. Divide students into groups of three or four. Each group will be responsible for researching and developing one scene for the classroom's Living Newspaper. Using the bookmarked links (for written sources, images, and audio sources), students will select:

        • 1 or 2 articles that will be used as the documentary source for their scene;
        • a photograph and sound recording that will be used to introduce their scene (optional).

        2. Encourage students to choose articles on the basis of their dramatic potential and the way in which they illustrate themes and issues related to "living Jim Crow" in the 1930s. Ask them to print out and hand in copies of the materials they will be using for their scene, along with a short explanation of the theme that the material is meant to reflect. Themes might include:

        • Racial Violence
        • Agricultural work or industrial labor
        • Family life
        • Political activism
        • Government policies related to African Americans

        Encourage students not to settle for the first article they come across. There is a wealth of interesting documentary material available on these websites.

        3. Review the material submitted by the student groups. All material should be approved by the teacher before students move on to the next step.

        Day Two

        Have students spend the day working in groups, developing short (2 to 3 minute) dramatic presentations using the material they have selected. Make yourself available to give advice.

        Optional: Assemble the sound files and digital photographs the students have selected and, using Powerpoint or a similar program, order the audio and video files in the sequence of the scenes that will be presented. You may want to enlist the aid of some of your more technically savvy students in this task.

        Day Three

        Have students perform their "Living Jim Crow" play. If you are using the audio and image files selected by the student groups, assign a student to operate the Powerpoint audio and image files, which will act as an interlude introducing each scene.


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