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Lesson Plan African American Identity in the Gilded Age: Two Unreconciled Strivings

Examine the tension experienced by African Americans as they struggled to establish a vibrant and meaningful identity based on the promises of liberty and equality in the midst of a society that was ambivalent towards them and sought to impose an inferior definition upon them.

The primary sources used are drawn from a time of great change that begins after Reconstruction's brief promise of full citizenship and ends with the First World War's Great Migration, when many African Americans sought greater freedoms and opportunities by leaving the South for booming industrial cities elsewhere in the nation.

The central question posed by these primary sources is how African Americans were able to form a meaningful identity for themselves, reject the inferior images fastened upon them, and still maintain the strength to keep "from being torn asunder." Using the primary sources presented here, look for answers that bring your ideas together in ways that reflect the richness of the African American experience.


Students will:

  • Recognize how African-Americans survived in an environment in which they were considered inferior;
  • Identify ways in which African-Americans sustained for themselves a vibrant culture;
  • Appreciate how personal identity requires coming to terms with external pressures; and
  • Recognize how common, shared experiences shape a people's identity.

Time Required

Three to five classes

Lesson Preparation



Student Galleries

Lesson Procedure

The lesson is divided into three parts:

Lesson One: Warming Up

  • A variety of instructional options. Choose the activities you would most like to pursue.

Lesson Two: Analyzing Primary Sources

  • View and analyze primary sources from different topics of the African American experience in the Gilded Age. Students keep a response journal. You may want to select specific primary sources beforehand for student responses.

Lesson Three: Following Up

  • A variety of instructional options. Choose the activities you would most like to pursue.

Key Questions

  • In what ways did African Americans identify themselves during this era?
  • In what ways did others identify African Americans during this era?
  • Is there evidence for the assertion that African Americans possessed a dual identity?
  • How much progress did African Americans make in the journey from slavery to equality?
  • How do different types of historical documents provide different insights about African Americans?
  • What kind of information about African Americans is lacking in the primary sources that comprise this project?

Lesson One: Warming Up

Select one of the following activities to introduce students to the idea that a person's identity is a complex thing, consisting of external and internal forces, and also tied to larger communal and societal identities.

Shoe box identity

Materials required for each student:

  • shoe box
  • materials with which to decorate the shoe box
  • objects that represent things important to the student


  • Most of us know what it is like to share with others only part of who we are. This activity visualizes the difference between a private identity kept to ourselves and those whom we trust and a public identity freely shared with others. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, "One ever feels his two-ness,an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, too many ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."


  1. Each student should decorate the outside of a shoe box in ways that show to others something about his or her identity (using college insignia or a photograph of an automobile, for example).
  2. The outside of the box represents a public identity; that is, those things we willingly share with others as a way of identifying who we are.
  3. On the inside of the box, the student should place several objects unseen by others which represent his or her private identity; that is, those things kept private from others.
  4. Students will need to decide if they would like to later reveal the inside items.
  5. After the box is completed, students can attempt to identify their classmates based on the box's outward appearance and then can guess what items (and identity!) might be hidden within.

Parallel time lines

Materials required for each student:

  • history textbook


  • Timelines are useful ways of tracking chronologies; a parallel timeline tracks two different kinds of activities across the same time span. This activity asks students to construct two timelines that compare events from a personal family history with those that are public and more widely known.


  1. Students label one of the timelines with events taken from their personal family history (the year they were born or their parents married, for example).
  2. Students label the second parallel timeline with memorable events drawn from their textbook, especially those events which they can connect with the ones on their first timeline (a family member who served in the Vietnam War, for example).
  3. Many students experience a sense of disconnection with events that the textbook labels as important--sometimes events swirling around us seem to have no bearing on our private lives.
  4. Then again, students may be encouraged to discern significant connections--certainly African Americans who may never have personally known a lynching victim nonetheless understood the import such an act carried for them.
  5. Note: Occasionally a student, especially one whose background is different from those of classmates, will not want to list events from his or her family's past, an indication of how painful it can be to share an identity with people who may not be accepting of it.

History in a wallet

Material required for each student:

  • his or her own wallet or billfold


  • We carry around primary sources all the time. This exercise requires students to use the items found in a wallet or billfold to offer an interpretation of the identify of the person carrying those items. Our understandings of the past are limited by the amount of information available to us; it can be difficult to make reliable hypotheses about the past. Therefore historians must be imaginative in order to fashion meaningful understandings with limited materials.


  1. Divide students into pairs.
  2. Have students examine the contents of each other's wallet or billfold. (You may want to give notice of this activity ahead of time!)
  3. The contents should be considered as the only artifacts available to tell about the life they represent.
  4. Students should consider:
    • What can you reasonably hypothesize about the identity of your partner?
    • What are you unable to know about your partner based on the contents before you?

Lesson Two: Analyzing Primary Sources


This activity is the heart of the unit. Sufficient time and attention should be provided for students to complete their analyses of the primary sources.

  1. This activity consists of seven topics. Each topic presents a selection of text, photographic, and motion picture primary sources drawn from several Library of Congress collections. The primary sources used in this lesson often contain stereotyping or violence. They are included because much can be learned about the attitudes of an era by considering the messages, intended and unintended, contained in document titles, descriptions, and ways of portraying people. Some students may find the images, language and attitudes disturbing. The links below provide materials for each topic.
  2. Assign topics to small groups of students.
  3. Before beginning, discuss with students that many of the primary sources contain hurtful stereotypes that should be handled with sensitivity.
  4. Have students analyze the primary sources within their topic. Students may record their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus the group work, and select additional questions to focus and prompt a whole class discussion of their analysis.
  5. Students complete a response journal for each item they analyze. This journal allows students to record information about and their reactions to the primary sources. Possible questions to focus student responses might include:
    • Response as a reader: How did you respond/react to the primary source?
    • Historical context: Explain how the primary source presents you with an image of the past that is either strange or familiar.
    • Historical significance: Describe how helpful the primary source is for developing an understanding of African American identity during the Gilded Age.
    Note: The response journal is required for several of the follow-up activities.

Lesson Three: Following Up

Select one or more of the following activities to allow students to synthesize the information from the primary sources they have analyzed.

Concept mapping


  • Concept mapping offers a useful means for organizing ideas by linking together documents and concepts, sometimes in ways that are different from how they have been presented in the lesson's topics.


  1. Assign students different concepts.
  2. Have students find multiple examples of the concept in the sources provided.
  3. Students should refer to their completed response journals for information.
  4. Example: The concept of dignity might link Booker T. Washington's statement, "The chief value of industrial education is to give to the students habits of industry, thrift, economy and an idea of the dignity of labor," (from Education) with the photograph "A Living sign on Fifth Avenue, New York City" (from Work). Such linkage would require students to consider how much dignity African Americans could find in labor if the nature of the work available to them was degrading.

A conversation in the past


  • At the time of his death in 1895, and for half a century before then, Frederick Douglass was the nation's most recognized and respected African American. After Douglass' death, Booker T. Washington played a similar role. Both men had been born to slavery; Douglass, however, had been a runaway, while Washington was still a child at the end of the Civil War. The issues the two confronted were similar and, at the same time, very different. Students can use the documents to create a series of onversations involving these historical figures.


  1. Using information from their response journals, pairs of students fashion a dialogue between the two men.
  2. The conversation could touch on a variety of subjects:
    • how to define the important issues of the day;
    • the nature of education that should be afforded young African Americans;
    • the expectations that should be placed upon African American leaders; or
    • the identity of this era's generation (the first to come of age without having once been slaves).


  1. Have students arrange a conference of African American leaders to discuss the issues of the day.
  2. Several of the pamphlets presented in the lesson are the result of such conferences and will suggest several topics around which such a conference could be staged.

A conversation with the present


  • Students often resort to these contradictory generalizations: "Nothing ever changes" and "That's all in the past." In studying the past, one is stuck both by how different and strange it is and by how much continuity there is with the present.


  1. For this conversation, students should choose a document whose speaker (or subject, if the document is a photograph) they find especially striking.
  2. Ask that they bring this speaker into the present to talk with the class about his or her observation of today's world compared with his or her own.
  3. Encourage the class to be prepared to answer the speaker's questions about the extent to which issues and circumstances have changed.

Poetry Presentation


  • Creating and sharing presentations can be used to effectively synthesize observations made by students as they draw conclusions from the documents they have examined. There are many ways such a presentation can be designed, with only one possibility suggested here. This exercise asks that students meld the power of words and images.


  1. Have students choose a photograph they find moving and to describe how they respond to it by writing a poem.
  2. Another option is to select short excerpts from the documents presented in the lesson and match them with photographs to visualize what the document says.
  3. Have students create a presentation combining their words and images.
  4. Allow time for presentations to the class.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluate student products and participation in the activities according to teacher-specified criteria or criteria generated through discussion and class consensus.


Scott Culclasure & Pat Adams-Caskie

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