Lesson Plans

Civil War & Reconstruction

A Look at Virginians During Reconstruction

Author: Elly Greene and Linda Sargent Wood (adapted with permission)

School: Laurel Grove School Curriculum Project

Grade Level: 4th

Time Estimated: 2 days

Historical Background

Virginia, 1865-1870

The 1869 Virginia Constitution, unlike previous state charters, mandated public education. Virginia’s position on public education—let alone its position on educating blacks—had been tenuous at best. Despite the efforts of some of its more famous citizens, the state had long resisted a system of free schools. Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful campaign for free schools had yielded little more than a literary fund for indigent children. All of that began to change when Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867 and demanded that southern states ratify new constitutions guaranteeing black suffrage. Once these constitutions met with congressional approval and after the state approved the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress promised re-admittance into the Union.

Responding to the Reconstruction Act, Virginians registered voters and called an election to decide if the state would hold a convention to revise the state’s constitution. In 1867, 226 Fairfax County blacks registered to vote and cast their ballots unanimously in favor of a constitutional convention. In 1869, they returned to the polls and voted for adoption of the Constitution.

At the 1867-1868 Constitutional Convention, education proved to be one of the most hotly debated topics. (The state’s war debt was the other top issue.) Though delegates, largely comprised of northern emigrants and freedmen, easily approved a public school system, they were strongly divided over the question of integration. Many northern immigrants viewed public schools as the foundation of a democratic society and a key to reconstruction of the South. They were not prepared, however, to vote for schools in which black and white children sat next to each other. When black members introduced resolutions ensuring equal access to education "without distinction of color," most white delegates never took these suggestions seriously. Even radicals who supported desegregation voted against such resolutions. Mindful of widespread sentiment against mixed schools, they did not want to risk ratification. In the end, while most assumed public schools would be segregated, no language could be agreed upon and the question was not resolved until the legislature revisited the issue in 1870.

Though blacks lost their campaign for mixed schools, they still crossed a milestone. Gaining access to public education was significant. However, as a result of poor political and financial support, Virginia’s first public schools for both blacks and whites were grossly inadequate. Many did not have heat or toilets, schools were small and scattered, and the average term was less than the five months mandated by the Constitution, and attendance, which was not required, was sparse. Despite these conditions—and those for black children were considerably worse than those for whites—black and white children still learned.

The William Jasper family, 1808-1870 [Talking Points]

  • William Jasper, an African American, was probably born in 1808 not far from George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon. He was born a slave on the Hayfield plantation of William Hayward Foote. Foote was one of the richest men in Fairfax County—when he died he owned 50 slaves.
  • Jasper worked on a plantation that grew wheat and corn, and raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs. Slaves at Hayfield, including Jasper, are likely to have been skilled as blacksmiths and carpenters.
  • Jasper and his family were not sold south to booming cotton and sugar plantations, as were many other slaves.
  • According to his will, Foote decided to free his slaves on or soon after his death in 1846. At this time Jasper, in his thirties, was valued by appraisers to be worth $350. Foote’s will also freed Jasper’s wife Sarah, in her mid-twenties, and their two daughters, Susan and Eliza, who were six and four. The family was actually freed in the early 1850s.
  • It is important to note that the Jaspers were free blacks in Virginia before the Civil War. But even as free blacks they faced numerous obstacles. They could not own a gun, obtain an education, vote, conduct business freely, or worship in religious services unless supervised by whites. Also they might be captured by slave traders and sold back into slavery.
  • The Jaspers wanted to stay in Virginia near friends and family, so in 1853 and 1858 they chose to register as free blacks in Fairfax County to prove their freedom. This meant they could travel and gain employment without too much fear of being mistaken for a slave.
  • In 1860 William Jasper purchased 13 acres of land near the Hayfield Plantation. It is likely that he put together the $200 to pay a white farmer and slave owner for the land from his work as a farmer.
  • The Jaspers probably did not stay on their newly acquired property during the Civil War—and it is also likely that what they had on this land, including buildings, animals and crops, was trampled by Confederate and Union soldiers during the war. After the war, the Jaspers returned to their farm.


Students will:

  1. Identify some of the problems Virginians faced during the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War
  2. Recognize how the national government supported African Americans during Reconstruction
  3. Appreciate how African Americans in Virginia exercised their newly won rights
  4. Identify and interpret primary source documents
  5. Determine cause and effect relationships
  6. Sequence events in Virginia history
  7. Interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives.
  8. Write a story that incorporates historical specifics, including primary sources.

SOL Skills

VS.1: The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to:

a) identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history
b) determine cause and effect relationships
f) sequence events in Virginia history
g) interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives

SOL Content

VS.8: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the reconstruction of Virginia following the Civil War by:

a) identifying the effects of Reconstruction on life in Virginia.



  1. Hook: Begin by asking students what they remember about slavery — specifically about how slavery impacted the lives of those who were slaves. Write students’ recollections on a web on the board or a flip chart. Then ask students what they know about free blacks before the Civil War: specifically what rights did and didn’t they have?
  2. Tell students that they will learn about the true story of William Jasper and his family, people who were first slaves then free blacks in Virginia, and will then get a chance to examine some documents for clues about life in Virginia after the Civil War.
  3. Use the talking points above about William Jasper and his family to tell students this story. As you do, ask students how the Jaspers' experience is similar to or different from what they remember about slaves and free blacks.
  4. Next have students work in pairs or small groups using the two primary source documents to focus their attention on life in Virginia during Reconstruction. Direct them to examine the documents and answer the following questions for each one:
    • What kind of document is this? How do you know?
    • When was it written?
    • How does each document involve William Jasper?
    • Why was the document written? Explain how you know the document's purpose.
    • Additional questions and observations: On the marriage license, why might there be a different name for William Jasper’s wife, than that in the Talking Points? (Explain that Sara Jasper died and that William Jasper married again.) Also notice ages, and occupation. On the list of voters, note the total number of colored voters voting, that only men are listed, and that they were not just registered but voted in 1867. Do you need to put something in the talking points about Jasper’s marriage to explain it to the teachers?
  5. Reconvene the class and have students report out what they found. Ask students:
    • What rights do these documents show that Jasper (and others) had in 1867 and 1869 that they did not have as slaves or as free blacks?
    • How did free blacks get the right to marry legally and to vote (among other rights)?
  6. Wrap up: The last question will provide an important problem-posing link to students' study of Reconstruction. Encourage students to hypothesize how these rights became legal for freed black people in Virginia, and write their hypotheses on the board or a flip chart.


Culminating Assessment:

Ask students to write a story that William Jasper might tell his children and grandchildren explaining what life was like for Virginians, particularly African American Virginians, during Reconstruction. Explain that students will need to include specifics from this history as an integral part of their story. It might be useful to take some time during English/Language Arts to complete this writing, since it provides students with practice in "writing effective narratives and explanations," (Grade Four English Standard of Learning 4.7).

A rubric might specify that an exemplary piece of writing would:

  1. Accurately and clearly discuss two or three historical specifics from Reconstruction
  2. Connect the lives of individuals to the actions of Congress and Virginia state government
  3. Demonstrate evidence that the student planned, wrote, revised and edited their narrative

References: Web

"America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War," Gilder Lehrman Institute

    This exhibition is part of the Digital History site that contains an up-to-date U.S. history textbook; annotated primary sources on United States, Mexican American, and Native American history, and slavery; and succinct essays on the history of ethnicity and immigration, film, private life, and science and technology. The text is by Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and renowned expert on Reconstruction, and Olivia Mahoney, Director of Historical Documentation at the Chicago Historical Society.

"Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877," American Memory, Library of Congress

    This Library of Congress exhibition contains succinct overviews of several aspects of the Civil War and Reconstruction and features primary sources, maps, and images.

References: Books & Media

Anderson, James. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Buck, J.L. Blair. The Development of Public Schools in Virginia, 1607-1952. Richmond: State Board of Education, 1952.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Heatwole, Cornelius J. A History of Education in Virginia. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Wood, Linda Sargent. "The Laurel Grove School: Educating the First Generation Born into Freedom." Unpublished essay: Nov. 27, 2002.