The topic of this lesson is Reconstruction and the subsequent attempts to help newly freed African Americans adjust to, and sustain their freedom. The students will investigate various ways the government tried to help these citizens and assess the effectiveness of these efforts. At the same time students will look at other sources leading up to the Jim Crow laws. The central point of investigation in this lesson is to interpret the change in the tone of Reconstruction from one that was more positive in nature- to help the former slaves, to one that was more negative- that reverted African Americans back into a condition that was all too similar to their situation prior to the Civil War.

Historical Background

The historical basis for this lesson begins during the Civil War. As he war continued to drag on for much longer than expected, it also became more and more about the abolition of slavery. While this is in all likelihood what the entire war was over in the first place it did not become clear until 1863 that this was the primary focus of the war. Based on this fact along with the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment, there were some very serious issues that would need to be dealt with by the government after the Union had won the Civil War.

The biggest job the government would have would be figuring out how to effectively bring the southern states back into the Union. Compounding this issue was the debate over how best to deal with the many newly freed former slaves in the South. There would be much debate on this topic, many ending in frustration. Despite this fact the general effort was to help the African Americans manage their new freedom and to ensure they kept it, were treated fairly, and had an opportunity to do better for themselves.

Despite the best efforts of the government and many volunteers, businessmen, etc., the gains made during the early stages of Reconstruction faded away quickly. After the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling declared the “separate but equal” was constitutional, there was little hope for long term equality in the South. Slowly but surely the dreams of equality that had seemed so attainable for African Americans after the Civil War slipped away and turned into the nightmare of Jim Crow. This would be a nightmare that would last nearly 100 years.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to describe the impact of Reconstruction policies on the South and North and to demonstrate knowledge of the effects of Reconstruction on American life by describing how Reconstruction policies were harsh and created problems in the South.



  1. Preview, Journal entry: After the Civil War slavery was abolished. Even though slavery was gone African Americans would be discriminated against for a very long time. Why do you think this happened? Could it have been avoided? Who would you blame for this?
  2. Students will view the first image, the freedmen’s bureau illustration from Harper’s Weekly. They will answer the questions: What do you see? What do you know? And what questions do you have? This information will be recorded on the board.
  3. The class will discuss the image and examine it in detail. The teacher should ask guiding questions to ensure the class addresses critical components.
  4. Students will analyze the second image, from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, following the same process.
  5. The teacher will lead a class discussion to corroborate the two images. The general tone of the images should be addressed so that students can draw conclusions about the general feeling of goodwill and optimism regarding equality. The dates of the illustrations are notable.
  6. Provide students with a handout for selected excerpts from the Plessy v. Ferguson Ruling. Include the following questions on the handout: 1) What is this document? 2) What is the date? 3) What is the main point of this document? and 4) Write one phrase to summarize the document.
  7. After analyzing the ruling, display the last image, depicting segregated water fountains, on the board. Follow the same image analysis procedures to discuss what students see, know, and what questions they have.
  8. Students will share their paraphrase of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and make connections between the text and the image. At this point, students should be able to see how the court ruling legalized segregation.
  9. Now that students have examined four primary source documents on the topic, ask them to consider a central question: Why have we witnessed such a change in attitude on this topic?
  10. Once the analysis of these sources is complete students will complete Reconstruction Notes page in their notebooks.


Students will write a paragraph detailing what they think went wrong in the Reconstruction process that led to the continued discrimination against African Americans until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.


Waud, A.R. “The First Vote.” Illustration. Harper’s Weekly: November 16, 1867. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (accessed November 14, 2011).

Waud, A.R. “The Freedmen’s Bureau.” Illustration. Harper’s Weekly: July 25, 1868. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (accessed November 14, 2011).

Erwitt, Elliott. “Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina.” Gelatin silver print. From the Stephen Daiter Gallery, 1970. (accessed November 14, 2011).

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Our Documents: 100 Milestone documents. (accessed November 14, 2011).