Black History Past & Present

Updated and expanded January 2015

A century and a half after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, students in 2015 will continue an 89-year tradition of studying African American history during February.

Historian Carter G. Woodson, along with colleagues at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), established Negro History Week in 1926. With mobs still lynching African Americans every year (335 deaths reported in the 1920’s) and a surge of race riots sweeping the country, Woodson wanted to provide a counterpoint to the racial discrimination that dominated America. Initially observed in black schools, churches and social organizations, the event grew into Black History Month (also known as African American History Month) with President Gerald Ford’s signature in 1976.

Since 1928 the ASALH has provided a theme (through 2010 here) for each year. Looking over the thematic titles can provide students with a sense of the concerns of African Americans over the decades. For example, the link for the 2006 theme can help students understand how African Americans, shut out of local and national organizations, developed their own fraternal, civic and social institutions, some of which fought violence against blacks — including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized in 1909. In 2014 the organization celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Find articles, videos and photos on the Act at

The fiftieth anniversary of Selma

Civil rights activists met violence in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, as they attempted to walk from that town to Montgomery to protest a state trooper’s fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African-American demonstrator, days earlier and to further their voter registration efforts. For contemporary New York Times reports, access PDFs in Michael Gonchar’s post for the newspaper’s Learning Network blog. There students can also view a three minute video reviewing the history of voting rights in the US, noting the US Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The post also provides links to current reports on state legislation limiting voting rights.

John Lewis was among the injured at Selma's  Edmund Pettus Bridge

John Lewis was among the injured at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge

The National Park Service provides a lesson on Selma with background on Alabama actions to limit voting as well as images, activities and links to a wide range of resources. John Lewis, currently a US Congressman serving Georgia, headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was injured during “Bloody Sunday” on March 7. The National Archives provides his court testimony requesting National Guard protection for a march that would begin March 21 and includes photos.

Up the road from Selma, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute draws parallels between the Civil Rights struggles in that city and the ongoing efforts to extend human rights in the video The Front Line. Students will see images of young children under arrest. Under the same Resources section are newspaper front pages from the period. In the Oral History section is Barriers which includes interviews with people who took part in the Alabama protests. The curriculum guide offers several lessons including one on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

2015 is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Students can find a quick overview of how slaves reacted to freedom at A New Birth of Freedom: The Day of Jubilee, a page from Digital History, a project of the College of Education at the University of Houston, which includes lesson plans such as this one on Reconstruction. Also in 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, ownership of human beings ended in all states though existing black codes were reinforced in 1865 and 1866 to replace the slave codes in Southern states, helping bring on Reconstruction legislation from the US Congress.

The Schomburg Center’s wealth of resources

The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture covers much of the African American experience with online multimedia exhibits sure to catch the attention of middle graders. ‘IN MOTION: The African American Immigration Experience’ starts with the immigration of Africans to America as slaves and then studies thirteen migrations, culminating with the influx of sub-Saharan Africans in recent years. In addition to the extensive collection of images, texts, maps and timelines, this 2005 exhibit offers grade specific lesson plans, including many for grades 6-8.

At the Schomburg Center’s exhibit, ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade,’ younger students may find the interactive timeline on the history of abolition of the slave trade — and the interactive map on numbers of slaves departing specific countries and arriving at other countries — most useful. Older students can research the essays, which offer general introductions that lead to more specific topics. The texts section provides extensive primary documents. Overall, this is a visually involving site that provides massive amounts of information in easy-to-access sections.

Another Schomburg exhibit, ‘Lest We Forget: The Triumph over Slavery,’ is also overflowing with interactive  materials arranged  chronologically. This exhibit uses a small font size in a pale color that makes using the resources less engaging than accessing other exhibits from the Center.

‘African Americans and American Politics,’ a Schomburg interactive exhibit from 2009, follows African Americans’ growing participation in American politics with sections for the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Students may need a quick demonstration on how to access the photos and documents, which are accompanied by brief explanations.

In  the Center’s ‘Harlem 1900 – 1940’ exhibit, covering the rapid growth of the African American community in New York, students will find advocates, artists, business leaders and politicians. It’s a super source for the Harlem Renaissance. Teachers can click on Main Menu, upper right, to access images and PDFs that explain how to do oral history. The page also links to civic, advocacy and social groups of the early 20th century.

Finally, the Schomburg offers a 2011 exhibit,  Africana Age: African & African Diasporan Transformations in the 20th Century. Its essays, images, brief videos and maps cover the African diaspora to the US and beyond. The essays will interest the upper age range of middle grades students.

Scholastic highlights the Underground Railroad

Scholastic helps students understand American slavery and the Underground Railroad with a multi-faceted, highly interactive resource. Through audio and images, slaves held at plantations and traveling north speak for themselves. Accompanying the selected slave narratives are primary resources, mostly photographs plus several documents. Students can also zero in on Harriet Tubman along with Underground Railroad volunteers and abolitionists. Activities include writing letters in code.

Scholastic debunks a long list of generally accepted myths about the Underground Railroad. The site also includes a detailed teacher’s guide. Nearby is Black History Month: Everything You Need which includes a page of suggestions for observing  Martin Luther King Day.

The Library of Congress has assembled a page for teachers featuring images related to African Americans’ experiences and civil rights, arranged in periods from the 1700’s to 1996. Following the long list of image links are resources drawn from the LOC’s American Memory Collection. To access ready-made lesson plans rather than multitudinous resources, visit this LOC selection. Several  lessons are suited for 6-8 graders. And visit the LOC’s page collecting resources across federal agencies.

The US Census: Focus on the 21st Century

For a look at African Americans in the 21st century, students can visit the US Census Bureau’s 2011 report on how people of African descent reported their race in the 2010 Census. Geographical locations are included. The report offers opportunities to study graphs and maps. A snapshot of African American culture can be found in the Census “Facts for Features” report prepared for Black History Month in 2015.

The Smithsonian: Civil rights and American art

The Smithsonian can help teachers bring art into the study of Black History with its online exhibit, ‘Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights through American Art at the Smithsonian.’ Glean ideas for bringing the exhibit into your classroom by visiting the ‘Oh Freedom! Online Conference: Teaching Civil Rights through Smithsonian Collections.’ The 2013 event, archived here, featured museum curators and grade school educators as well as keynoter Richard J. Powell of Duke University. For an overview on using the site’s resources, visit the FAQ.

While exploring, don’t miss the interactive timeline covering civil rights in the 20th century which links to artists and artworks, including photographs, in the Smithsonian collection. At the More Resources link, the Smithsonian provides strategies for incorporating art into history and includes graphic organizers, worksheets and lesson plans. Two of the lesson plans included in the exhibit target middle schoolers: ‘Citizens Making Choices: The Role of the U.S. Constitution in Peaceful Protest’ features the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968 and the 1992 LA riots. The other lesson introduces ‘The Many Faces of Civil Rights.’ The Resources page also links to extensive online resources for teachers as well as a detailed glossary. Resources for students are limited to books. Students do have their say in a series of podcasts.

Beyond the Smithsonian, check out media literacy expert Frank W Baker’s MiddleWeb article on The Visions of Gordon Parks which links the photographer’s artistry to his revelations of the lives of African Americans.

Black History Month: Reading & Writing

For English/Language Arts involvement in Black History Month, READ WRITE THINK offers a page which centers on the month-long National African American Read-In  from the Black Caucus of NCTE.  The RWT page also includes lesson plans and links to the Library of Congress’ African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship and PBS’ African American World. Reading Rockets, a WETA website, offers video interviews of African American authors and illustrators along with annotated thematic reading lists, activities and links to a long list of resources. Included in the Smithsonian’s Black History Teaching Resources is a reading list of stories for students ages ten and up assembled in 1996. CommonSense Media hosts an annotated list of awarding winning books written for the most part since 2005, arranged by reader age.

To introduce poetry by African Americans, consider using Elizabeth Alexander’s engaging talk on the sources of black poetry and its interplay with hip-hop. Just a couple of words will need to be explained. Students can view Alexander’s 2009 Inauguration poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” here. (minute 54:30)

For a chronological look into African American poetry, students could contrast Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman poet published in America, and Natasha Trethewey, the 19th US Poet Laureate. Trethewey links the Civil War to present day America in her poem, “Elegy for the Native Guard,’ remembering slaves and freedmen who enthusiastically served the Union. This link provides video of her reading the poem during a trip to Mississippi’s Ship Island where some of the Guard served. It features African American Native Guard re-enactors.

Sciencemakers: Leaders in STEM

The National Science Foundation-funded Historymakers’ collection, Sciencemakers, offers images and interviews of contemporary African American scientists and mathematicians. Teachers could adapt one aspect of the Sciencemakers page: encouraging students to create speeches or videos imagining themselves as future scientists or as scientists of the past or present. Historymakers also hosts collections of text interviews with hundreds of African American leaders in education, the military, the law, music, and other categories. Through a subscription service Historymakers sells videos of the interviews.

As part of its Black History Month resourcesScience NetLinks  offers ‘The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences.’ The brief biographies of the scientists, engineers and mathematicians are organized by profession and cover past and present. Other resources at the Science NetLinks page look into skin color. For students interested in space travel, NASA provides brief bios of current and past black astronauts. In 2011 Leland Melvin, a former astronaut who also worked as an engineer, chemist, musician, NFL player, and NASA educator, explained the history of African Americans in flight. (Update, February 2015: In an NPR “My Big Break” interview, Melvin recalls his journey to becoming an astronaut and being part of the team taking the US into space. He is currently hosting Lifetime’s Child Genius, a competition with 8 to 12 year olds.)Leland Melvin with DC students

Leland Melvin with DC students

The Future of Black History Month

A recurrent discussion among educators and other Americans is whether racial and ethnic groups – African Americans, Latinos and Asians, for example – should be singled out for annual observations of their cultures. African Americans discuss whether Black History Month should continue to be observed in a five-minute PBS news segment from 2012.

For a longer treatment of the questions about celebrating Black History Month, visit Independent Lens’ page on African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s documentary, ‘More than a Month.’ Aired on PBS in 2012, the film follows Tilghman as he begins by soliciting signatures to end Black History Month and then goes on to present differing points of view. The Independent Lens page provides several clips. Clip 3 returns to Carter G. Woodson, the creator of the annual observance, and goes on to discuss the impact of politics on how history is taught in American schools. The page includes an interview with Tilghman which can show students the challenges of making a documentary. The comments following the interview give a cross-section of attitudes toward Black History Month.

Update: During Black History Month, helping students understand their role in history  Teacher /writer Jose Vilson shares a class discussion following the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown and considers the value of Black History Month for his diverse students, in this essay written for the PBS Newshour and posted Feb. 18, 2015.

Update: The Newseum in Washington, DC, offers modules on unsung civil rights and women’s rights heroes. Included is a writing contest for students to select and write about an unsung event for use in the Historical Connections timeline or the civil rights Media Literacy map. Templates are provided as are prizes for the winners and their teachers. The deadline is March 31, 2015.

Update: (February 10, 2015)  The Equal Justice Initiative – EJI – released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, a report on the results of the nonprofit organization’s multi-year study of lynchings in 12 Southern states from 1877 until 1950, documenting 3959 racial terror lynchings, at least 700 more than had been previously counted.

Update: Black History Month Has Been an Epic Failure – In a Huffington Post article, journalist Dion Rabouin faults teachers and proponents of Black History Month in the United States for failing to heed Malcolm X’s message: “Our history did not begin in chains.” Rabouin goes on to recount many great achievements by Black people in world history which he contends are given short shrift in American history lessons.

Update: Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Black History from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance.  From Larry Ferlazzo’s collection of Black History Month listings.

Update: Don’t miss EDSITEment’s Guide to Black History Month Teaching Resources. It provides educators with over 550 years of the African American experience arranged chronologically.

Update: The US House of Representatives has just launched a website about its history. Included is “Black Americans in Congress” which features profiles of the congressmen and women along with 7-12th grade lessons plans following these members’ participation in the House from 1870 forward. Civil Rights history is provided in oral histories and an outline of Amendments and legislation.

Update: Jennifer Davis Bowman, Ed.D. recommends 8 Black History Study Strategies to Avoid so that students can see the relationship of black history to American culture.

Update (February 4, 2015):  The New York Times Learning Network has updated it collection of resources, Celebrate Black History Month.


Update: 6 Edtech Tools for Black History Month Get fresh ideas for exploring Black History from writer/educator Irvin Weathersby in this Edutopia post: a “location-enabled app highlights sites of significance to black history,” a database tracing the TransAtlantic slave trade, podcast guidelines from the Smithsonian, and more.

Art and photo credits:

Carter G. Woodson: US Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations. Branch. News Bureau. (06/13/1942 – 09/15/1945)

Selma: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-1277321st

Vote for African Americans: Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph). “The First Vote.” Nov. 16, 1867, from Harper’s Weekly. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Underground Railroad:  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-28860]

Evening Attire: James VanDerZee (1886–1983), Evening Attire, 1922, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum

Leland Melvin: NASA/Carla Cioffi


Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis is co-editor of In a long career, she has taught middle grades students, worked in human services, edited a variety of publications and wrangled the reference desk in libraries.

1 Response

  1. There is an excellent profile/ interview with CBS News reporter Bill Plante (from CBS’ 60 Minutes & 60 Minutes Overtime, 2/8/15). Plante was a young reporter for the network when he covered Selma. In the profile, he reads from his original TV news scripts and comments on the time period. URL:

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