Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Creative Americans

[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

African-American Leadership and Civil Rights

At the turn of twentieth century, many African Americans migrated to northern cities such as Chicago and New York to escape the racial prejudice that predominated in the South, depriving them of political power despite the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment. Even in the North, however, prejudice confined them to the lowest-paying jobs and poor housing conditions. Much remained to be done to establish racial equality, and many individuals would rise to the occasion as Civil Rights leaders throughout the century. One of the first of these leaders was W.E.B Du Bois, who established the NAACP in order to secure African Americans' constitutional rights through the courts. Students can refer to the collection's Occupational Index for other African-American Leaders and search American Memory and the Web for more information about these and other leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. Some questions that students might want to consider include the following:

  • In what ways did each leader make inroads toward equality for African Americans?
  • How many different methods for achieving equality can you identify?
  • Are some of these methods in tension with each other? How?
  • Which methods seem the best? Why?
  • Why are these individuals considered leaders?

One form of prejudice against African Americans has been their exclusion from the professional world. With this background, students can appreciate the significance of the increased participation and success of African Americans in the Performing Arts, documented in this collection. In addition to the more celebrated African-American performing artists including Pearl Bailey, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Robeson, and Bill Robinson, students can browse the Subject Index for countless portraits of lesser-known performers. Ask your students to include these individuals in their consideration of African-American leadership as outlined above and answer the following questions:

  • How do the Performing Arts affect social conditions?
  • What is the relationship between social and political equality?
  • Why do you think African Americans were able to make inroads in this profession?
  • In what other professional fields were African Americans earliest able to participate?

You may also want to refer students to "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, 1860s-1960s" and "The Play that Electrified Harlem" for an article about the Federal Theater Project's "Negro Unit."