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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Collection Overview

The African American Odyssey showcases African American collections from the Library of Congress. The exhibition tells the story of the African American experience through nine chronological periods. Over 240 items document the courage and determination of blacks faced with adverse circumstances, who overcame immense odds to fully participate in all aspects of American society. The exhibit includes the work of abolitionists and the long post-Civil War journey toward equality in employment, education and politics. The exhibition details strategies used to secure the vote, recognizes outstanding black leaders, and documents the contributions of black sports figures, soldiers, artists, actors, writers, and others in the fight against segregation and discrimination.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Colonial Settlement, 1492-1763
  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword. Readers may also view items in the exhibition by selecting from nine Exhibit Sections (nine chronological periods) or from an exhibition Object List

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.



The African American Odyssey presents five Library of Congress collections related to African American history, along with an in-depth Special Presentation based on a Library exhibition, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. The five collections in The African American Odyssey are:

The Little Rock Nine.

The Little Rock Nine Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-119154 (9-18b) Courtesy of the NAACP

The African American Odyssey does not offer a search function, but each collection can be searched individually; additionally, all can be searched, along with other collections related to African American history, at Search Selected Collections: African American History. Each of the collections within The African American Odyssey has its own Collection Connection.

This Collection Connection centers on the Special Presentation entitled African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship.

The Special Presentation, which can be searched by Keyword, is based on a special Library exhibition of 240 books, maps, musical scores, plays, films, photographs, and more. It traces the experiences of African Americans through nine chronological periods, beginning with slavery and ending with the Civil Rights era. The presentation emphasizes “the courage and determination of blacks, faced with adverse circumstances, who overcame immense odds to fully participate in all aspects of American society.” Thus, the Special Presentation traces the quest for equality from the resistance to enslavement through the achievements of the Civil Rights movement.

Slavery - Resisting the Peculiar Institution

The section of the Special Presentation about slavery “explores the methods used by Africans and their American-born descendants to resist enslavement, as well as to demand emancipation and full participation in American society.” Resistance began on board slave trading ships. Read the context about resistance aboard the Hope and then examine this excerpt from the document describing the testimony of a witness to events on the ship.

After some time spent in trading at Goree, Captain Gould and Company in this aforesaid Brigantine Hope went to Gambia, and then returned to Goree and took in between thirty and forty slaves, and then went to Senegal and took in two or three more slaves, but did not go over the Bar. That whilst they lay there, one day about the 15. May the Captain was very tyrannical and had beat and abused all the people very much. . . in their passage, the slaves rose, and killed the carpenter, and wounded Taggart and Walker, but the slaves were suppressed after seven of them being destroyed . . .

From “A slave revolt aboard the brigantine Hope,” pages 1 and 2

  • According to the text in the Special Presentation, what event was being investigated when William Priest provided testimony? Given this event and the circumstances described in the excerpt above, how would you describe the atmosphere on the slave ship named Hope? How would you determine if other slave ships saw similar violence while at sea and in port?
  • Find information in the Special Presentation section on slavery about other slave revolts on board ships. When did these revolts occur? What was the outcome of these revolts? How were the issues around these revolts resolved?

Shipboard revolts were only one strategy people used to resist enslavement. Read the Special Presentation section on slavery and compile a chart showing other forms of resistance. For each form of resistance you list, give at least one example and its outcome. Also give your own assessment, based on evidence from the collection and any additional sources you can locate, of the potential of this strategy for achieving freedom in the short and long term. In your opinion, which strategies were most effective? Which most likely had the greatest effect in terms of ending slavery in the United States?

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period

While many African Americans in the nation’s early years were enslaved, others lived as free men and women in both the North and South. Make a list of things you know or could deduce from your historical knowledge about the lives of free African Americans in the antebellum period.

Then read the introduction to the Free Blacks section of the Special Presentation. Read the excerpt below from a speech, delivered in Boston in 1797, by Prince Hall, a Revolutionary War veteran who established the first African American Masonic lodge in the United States:

. . . Patience I say, for were we not possess’d of a great measure of it you could not bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston; much more on public days of recreation, how are you shamefully abus’d, and that at such a degree, that you may truly be said to carry your lives in your hands; and the arrows of death are flying about your heads; helpless old women have their clothes torn off their backs, even to the exposing of their nakedness; and by whom are these disgraceful and abusive actions committed, not by the men born and bred in Boston, for they are better bred; but by a mob or horde of shameless, low-lived, envious, spiteful persons, some of them not long since, servants in gentlemen’s kitchings, scouring knives, tending horses, and driving chaise. . . . many in town who have seen their behaviour to you, and that without any provocations, twenty or thirty cowards fall upon one man, have wonder’d at the patience of the Blacks: ‘tis not for want of courage in you, for they know that they dare not face you man for man, but in a mob, which we despise, and had rather suffer wrong than to do wrong, to the disturbance of the community and the disgrace of our reputation: for every good citizen doth honor to the laws of the State where he resides.

From Prince Hall. A Charge Delivered to the African Lodge, June 24, 1797, at Menotomy, images 9 and 10.

  • In what ways did free African Americans contribute to U.S. society in the years before the Civil War?
  • How did free African Americans express their views and beliefs in this period?
  • What were some of the challenges faced by free African Americans?
  • Explain the situation described by Prince Hall. Whom does Prince blame for the abuse experienced by African Americans? How does he explain the response by African Americans? Does reading about this kind of abuse surprise you? Why or why not?

Many free African Americans tried to help those in slavery escape, while working to end the institution of slavery. The Underground Railroad is the well-known network of routes and hiding places used to help enslaved people escape. The Special Presentation includes a lengthy book by a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, William Still. Read the preface to Still’s book and consider these questions:

  • How did William Still gain his freedom? How do you think his personal story influenced his work on the Underground Railroad?
  • In the revised Preface in 1878, Still says “the necessity of the times requires this testimony”? How would information about slavery and the efforts of people to escape from and end slavery be helpful in that era?
  • Still mentions in the Preface that the heroism of fugitives inspired the abolitionists in the antebellum period. What evidence can you find in the Special Presentation (look in both the Free Blacks and Abolition sections) to support his claim?
  • Still points out that the history of the founders of the United States was widely known 100 years after the country was established. One could infer that he believed the story of the Underground Railroad and the courageous people it helped should be equally well known. Do you think that the story of the Underground Railroad is as well known today as the story of the Founders of the United States? Why or why not?

Black writers working in different genres were important in the antebellum era. That period saw the establishment of the free African American press, black-controlled newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and The North Star, the latter founded and run by the writer (and former slave) Frederick Douglass. The Special Presentation includes one front page from Freedom’s Journal, and one from The North Star. Examine these pages and answer the following questions:

  • Who was the primary audience for these papers?
  • How do you think the articles you read helped advance the newspaper’s goal? Explain your answer.

Abolition, Anti-Slavery Movements and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy

Some Americans who worked to end slavery were motivated by their religious beliefs. These people used arguments based in religious teachings to make the case against slavery. Examine each of the following documents:

John G. Whittier. “The Branded Hand.”

John G. Whittier. “The Branded Hand.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division

What religious beliefs motivated the authors? How were their arguments similar and different? To whom did they address their appeals?

Religious sermons and writings were only one way abolitionists tried to convince others of the worth of their cause. They also used visual images, songs, poetry, novels, and drama in their campaign. Read the poem that John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about Jonathan Walker.

  • Describe the series of events that prompted Whittier to write the poem.
  • To what historical figures did Whittier compare Walker?
  • What did Whittier suggest the brand “SS” actually means? Give other examples of his use of the language of Christianity in the poem.
  • How effective do you think this poem was in eliciting support for the cause of abolition?
  • Find another poem written by an abolitionist and compare the two. How are they similar and different? Which do you find most effective? Why?
Detail from Anthony Burns

Detail from Anthony Burns Boston: R. M. Edwards, 1855. Wood engraving with letterpress. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-90750 (3-9)

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was one of the most controversial pieces of the Compromise of 1850. The law’s authors wanted to force law enforcement officials in free states to return slaves who had managed to escape from the South. The law had several unintended consequences. Study the section of the Special Presentation on the Fugitive Slave Law and answer the following questions:

  • Name two unintended consequences of the Fugitive Slave Law. Did these unintended consequences work for or against slaveholders? Explain your answer.
  • How did S.M. Africanus justify noncompliance with the Fugitive Slave Law? Do you agree that civil disobedience would be justified with respect to this law? Why or why not?
  • Find out more about the case of Anthony Burns. Why did his case become so important to people on both sides of the slavery issue?

The Civil War

Timothy O'Sullivan. Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River

Timothy O'Sullivan. Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Rappahannock, Virginia, August 1862. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-518

Are you familiar with the word contraband? During the Civil War, it had a special meaning. Read the introduction to The Civil War section of the Special Presentation, as well as the subsection titled “Contrabands of War.” Then answer these questions:

  • What did the term contraband of war mean during the Civil War? Do you think this is an appropriate use of the term? Why or why not?
  • In what way were the people referred to by the term contraband of war useful to the Union forces?
  • How did photographer and artist Alfred Waud respond to observing the escaped slaves in Union Army camps? How do you respond to the images of these African Americans?
  • How did the Emancipation Proclamation change the status of the escaped slaves? According to the exhibit, by the end of the Civil War, one in eight Union soldiers was African American. Does this statistic surprise you? Why or why not?
  • Photography was a relatively new technology at the time of the Civil War. How do you think photography changed the way history is recorded? Use examples from the Special Presentation or from the five collections making up African American Odyssey to support your answer.
William R. Pywell. Slave Pen in Alexandria, Va.

William R. Pywell. Slave Pen in Alexandria, Va. [1862] Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-2296

African American soldiers did not receive equal treatment in the Union Army: they were paid less, sometimes they did not get paid for extended periods, and they were not allowed to attain high ranks. Nonetheless, these soldiers were loyal to the Union cause, and many distinguished themselves in their service to the nation. Christian A. Fleetwood, an African American soldier, won the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the American flag during a battle in Virginia; his citation read "Seized the colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight." (He was one of fourteen African American men to receive that high honor during the Civil War). Read his account of the action from his diary (images 153-155).

  • How did Fleetwood describe the actions that won him the Congressional Medal of Honor? What would you conclude about his character based on what he wrote?
  • To whom did Fleetwood refer as “stars”? Would you use the term similarly today?
  • What can you learn about war from the diary of a soldier like Christian Fleetwood? Read some other entries from the diary and develop a list of adjectives you would use to describe Fleetwood’s experience as a soldier in the Union Army.

Reconstruction and Its Aftermath

Thomas Nast. Emancipation

Thomas Nast. Emancipation Philadelphia: S. Bott, 1865. Wood engraving. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2573

The image above shows the famous illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s vision of the future of the African Americans freed through the Emancipation Proclamation. Examine the image closely and read the introduction to the section of the Special Presentation on Reconstruction and Its Aftermath.

  • How did Nast envision the future for freed African Americans? Would you say his view of the future was generally positive or generally negative?
  • Does the introduction to the Special Presentation section on Reconstruction support or refute Nast’s view? Cite specific language from the introduction to support your answer.
  • What do you see as the major problems facing the nation as a whole and African Americans in particular at the end of the Civil War?

In January 1867, the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau made a report to Congress on the status of affairs in the Southern states. He described many problems, as seen in this excerpt from the report on South Carolina:

I found the freed people in a most wretched condition from want of clothing and food. They were treated generally in a most cruel and, in many instances, a most barbarous manner by their former masters, who seemed to be doubly bitter because they could no longer hold them as slaves. Outrages, such as whipping, typing up by the thumbs, and shooting, were of daily occurrences, and the force of troops in the State was totally inadequate to meet the demands made upon it for ferreting out and arresting the perpetrators of these outrages. . . .

The schools for freed people in this State are in successful operation . . . There is a strong desire on the part of this race of people to obtain the knowledge which was denied to them while in the bonds of slavery; their progress is very creditable to them, and their examinations would not be discreditable to a school of white children under the same circumstances.

From “Laws in Relation to Freedmen, U.S. Sen. 39th Congress, 2nd Sess. Senate Executive Doc. No. 6.,” images 112, 113, and 115

Read the report from one of the Southern states, making a list of all the problems mentioned. Code your list to show who felt its effects—African Americans, Southern whites, or both. Also code what you believe to be the source of each problem—the prior conditions under which African American lives, the current attitudes of people of both races, nature, or other causes. Write a paragraph summarizing the problems and issues facing the Southern states in the years following the Civil War. What approach would you have recommended to solve these problems? If you had been a freed African American, would you have stayed in the South? Why or why not?

Many emancipated African Americans did choose to stay in the South, while others moved North and yet others headed for the West. The latter group, dubbed “Exodusters,” established all-black communities in several western states. One of these communities was Nicodemus, Kansas. Examine the text and documents about Nicodemus provided in the Special Presentation. Then consider the following questions:

  • Where was Nicodemus located? What natural resources would have been available in that area?
  • How far would African Americans in Southern states have had to travel to get to Nicodemus? What does this tell you about their motivation to relocate?
  • How did organizers like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton convince African Americans to become Exodusters? What can you infer from the poster about some of the issues facing African Americans looking to leave the South?

Education for African Americans was an essential endeavor following the Civil War. Since the slave states had forbidden slaves from becoming literate, most African Americans could not read or write—but they were highly motivated to learn. Teachers, both black and white, often worked in harsh conditions to help a majority of African Americans become literate. Many African Americans went on to college at such institutions as Wilberforce University, an Ohio school established specifically to serve black students. Read the letter from the Pennsylvania Branch of the American Freedman’s Union Commission.

J. Hoover. Heroes of the Colored Race

J. Hoover. Heroes of the Colored Race Philadelphia, 1881. Color lithograph with portraits of Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Revels. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-10180

  • According to this letter, why was it necessary for people interested in educating newly freed African Americans to form “Freedmen’s Associations” and the American Freedman’s Union Commission”?
  • In what ways did the Pennsylvania Branch help newly freed African Americans in the South?
  • What did the writers mean by “Each teacher is expected to go to the field in the missionary spirit”? How do you respond to that statement?
  • Teachers were instructed to correspond with the individuals, churches, or communities supporting them. Why was this important?
  • To what values did the Union Commission appeal in asking Pennsylvanians to raise money to support teachers? How do these values relate to the situation in which newly freed African Americans found themselves?

With the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all male citizens the right to vote, African Americans became active in Southern politics. From information in the Fruits of Reconstruction section of the Special Presentation, create a list of African Americans who served in government, either in elected or appointed positions, during Reconstruction. Create your own “Heroes of Reconstruction” poster to show the contributions of these leaders.

The Booker T. Washington Era

From the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the U.S. government took a hands-off approach to the Southern states and the issues faced by African Americans. With no federal oversight, as white Southerners regained control of state legislatures, they passed discriminatory laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which took away many of the rights gained after the Civil War. Racial violence and lynchings surged.

All was not negative, however, as the introduction to the Special Presentation section on The Booker T. Washington Era makes clear. African Americans continued to serve in the military and to seek out educational opportunities, they produced stellar work in the arts, and civil rights organizations were founded to continue the struggle for full citizenship.

Booker T. Washington (three-quarter length portrait, seated and facing slightly left, holding newspaper)

Booker T. Washington (three-quarter length portrait, seated and facing slightly left, holding newspaper) ca. 1890. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-25624

One of the best-known African Americans of the post-Reconstruction era was Booker T. Washington. Washington was the founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, an institution of higher learning based on Washington’s philosophy of patience, industry, and thrift; his school emphasized vocational training—preparation for jobs, including jobs as teachers—rather than a strictly academic experience. Washington believed African Americans needed to master the skills that would help them be successful in farming and other trades. He stressed the “useful” over the “geegaws of life.”

Washington became famous nationally after giving a speech at the opening of the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. In that speech, he urged both races to learn to work together to the benefit of both; yet he offered a famously phrased compromise regarding the social sphere:

As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, by nursing your children, watching by the sick bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear dimmed eyes to their graves, as in the future in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

From "Atlanta Exposition Speech," September 18, 1895, image 4

Read the remainder of Washington’s speech and answer these questions:

  • Why do you think Washington made the case for African American loyalty to white Southerners? How do you think white Southerners responded to this appeal?
  • Do you find the fingers/hand metaphor an effective way to offer the compromise Washington was presenting? Why or why not?
  • What did Washington say about “the agitation of questions of social equality”? Who might have disagreed with his position? What arguments could opponents have made in response to Washington’s speech?

Another prominent African American, W.E.B. DuBois, congratulated Washington on the success of his speech but was among those who agitated on “questions of social equality.” Find out more about W.E.B. DuBois and how his philosophy differed from that of Booker T. Washington.

African American women were also at the forefront of debates about the best approach to help black Americans attain full citizenship. While Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary Church Terrell, like DuBois and Washington, had different philosophies, both advocated for education and employment for African American women.

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday. Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4734/LC-USZ62-33793 (6-10b) Courtesy of the NAACP

The post-Reconstruction period saw an increase in violence against African Americans. Lynching was a particularly appalling problem. One of the leaders of the anti-lynching movement was an African American journalist, Ida B.Wells-Barnett. Read the “Report of Anti-lynching Committee, January 21, 1921,” which provides data on lynchings:

  • Map the states in which lynchings were most common. What do you notice about the locations of the states where lynchings occurred?
  • What kinds of offenses were lynching victims accused of?
  • What could you infer from the number of lynching victims who were taken from police custody?
  • What strategies for combating lynching are mentioned in the report? What barriers prevented these efforts from being successful quickly?

The Anti-Lynching Committee was a committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the civil rights organizations founded during the post-Reconstruction period. Another was the National Urban League. What were the goals of these two organizations? Why might conditions at the time have necessitated collective (rather than individual) action? Can you think of other historical examples when oppressed people have created organizations to work for change? How effective has organizing been?

World War I and Postwar Era

The experiences of African American soldiers in World War I and upon their return caused civil rights organizations like the NAACP to increase their efforts for racial justice. The efforts of black servicemen were extensively documented in a 600-page history by Emmett J. Scott, a special assistant to the Secretary of War in charge of “recruitment, training, and morale of the African American soldiers.” In the final chapter of his book, titled “What the Negro Got Out of the War,” Scott said:

Briefly stated, the Negroes did their full share in the great struggle to make the world safe for democracy. . . .

What has the American Negro got out of the war? Time alone can bring the full answer to this sweeping question. To some of the manifold implications which the query itself involves, however, some answers can already be made. For one thing, the war has brought to the American Negro a keener and more sharply defined consciousness, not only of his duties as a citizen, but of his rights and privileges as a citizen of the United States. The colored people of America performed to the utmost of their ability the duties which the war imposed upon all citizens, black and white alike.

A summary of what the Negro wants may be stated: He wants justice in the courts substituted for lynching, the privilege of serving on juries, the right to vote, and the right to hold office, like other citizens. He wants, moreover, universal suffrage, better educational facilities, the abolition of the “Jim Crow” car, discontinuance of unjust discriminatory regulations and segregation in the various departments of the Government, the same military training for Negro youths as for white, the removal of “dead lines” in the recognition of fitness for promotion in the army and navy, the destruction of the peonage system, an economic wage scale to be applied to whites and blacks alike, better housing conditions for Negro employees in industrial centers, better sanitary conditions in the Negro sections of cities, and reforms in the Southern penal institutions. If, after having fulfilled the obligations of citizenship Negroes do not get these things, then indeed, they feel, will the war have been fought in vain.

From “Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War, 1919,” image 555

  • According to Scott, what did African Americans get from the war?
  • What do you think Scott meant by a “keener and more sharply defined consciousness”? What did this consciousness prompt African Americans to seek?
  • Imagine that you were an African American soldier returning from war to Jim Crow America. How would you have felt about the discrimination you experienced? Write a letter to the president explaining the changes needed in American society.

The NAACP had started, almost since its inception, asking the courts to overturn discriminatory laws. In 1915 and 1916, it achieved two important victories in the cases of Guinn v. United States and Charles Buchanan v. William Warley. Read the text on these two cases; describe the Court’s decision in each case. Why were these cases important? How did those who wished to discriminate circumvent these decisions?

Marian Anderson receives the Spingarn Medal from Eleanor Roosevelt

Marian Anderson receives the Spingarn Medal from Eleanor Roosevelt Silver gelatin print. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Courtesy of the NAACP

In the 1920s, Harlem, a section of New York City in which many African Americans lived, became a center of cultural activity. Because of the prodigious outpouring of philosophy, literature, art, drama, and music produced in Harlem during that time, the era became known as the Harlem Renaissance. (“Renaissance” means “rebirth” and is often applied to a period of vigorous artistic expression, such as the flowering of culture that began in Italy in the late thirteenth century.)

The African American artists and intellectuals active in this period explored new ways to express the experiences of black people in the United States. They experimented with new forms that celebrated African American creativity and identity.

Read about the various artists who were part of the Harlem Renaissance in the section titled “The Harlem Renaissance and the Flowering of Creativity.” Read also about the Harmon Foundation that supported some of those artists with cash awards. Choose one of the artists, writers, or musicians in whom you are interested and learn more about his or her work. Write a letter nominating that individual for a Harmon Foundation award. How did that person’s work reflect the experiences of black people in the United States? What insights can be gained from studying the person’s work today, many decades after it was created?

Depression, New Deal, and World War II

The collapse of the economy in 1929 and into the 1930s created hard times across the United States. While some African Americans gained employment through President Roosevelt’s New Deal, many others suffered tremendously during this period.

With the Nazis in power in Germany and the Berlin Olympics of 1936 looming, NAACP leader Walter White wrote a letter to the great African American athlete Jesse Owens, urging him not to compete in the Games. Although the letter was not sent, White makes interesting arguments. Read the letter and consider these questions:

  • Why did White think participation of African American athletes in the Berlin Olympics would “do irreparable harm”? Do you find his argument convincing?
  • How did White relate the issue of Nazism and prejudice to the Great Depression? What did he predict might happen if the economy did not recover?
  • If you had advised Jesse Owens prior to the Olympics, would you have urged him to participate or to stay home? How would knowing that Owens would win four gold medals in the Berlin games change your advice?

The coming of World War II finally turned the economy around. African Americans were much more vocal about the discrimination they experienced in the military than they had been during World War I. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest segregation.

Pressure from civil rights groups and other black organizations convinced the military to provide training for African American pilots. Although they trained at a segregated base, the renowned Tuskegee Airmen served with great honor during World War II.

Charles White. The Return of the Soldier, 1946.

Charles White. The Return of the Soldier, 1946. Pen and ink on illustration board. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4886

  • Why do you think the mere threat of a march on Washington caused President Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning discrimination in employment in defense industries and the government?
  • Why would flight training for African American pilots have had both symbolic and practical importance?
  • Read about the heroism of Navy Mess Attendant Dorie Miller. Why were Miller’s actions especially notable? What lessons might observers taken from Miller’s actions?

Once again, when African American soldiers returned from war, they faced discrimination and violence.

  • What does the illustration below show? Who is the hooded figure in the picture?
  • What was the artist saying about the role of the police in the violence against African American?
  • How do you respond to this illustration? How effectively does it convey the situation faced by African American veterans? Explain your answer.

Civil Rights

In the twenty years following the end of World War II, African Americans worked tirelessly, often side by side with white Americans, to gain equal rights. They worked through the courts; lobbied legislatures; conducted direct action through marches, protests, boycotts, and nonviolence resistance; and achieved greatness in sports and the arts.

Create a chart with four columns, like the one shown below:

Action People Involved Reasoning Outcome/Effects

Using information from the Civil Rights Era section of the Special Presentation, complete the chart, filling in as many different actions taken by civil rights activists as you can. When you have finished, examine your chart carefully. Write an essay describing the avenues to change used in the Civil Rights movement. Use photographs, charts, or illustrations from the Special Presentation or the five collections of The African American Odyssey to illustrate your essay.


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Historical Periodization

History is a vast subject. To make studying it more manageable, historians divide the past into periods. A period is a defined block of time; the years included in a period have something in common, but what that common factor is may vary. Some periods are based on important events (The Revolutionary War); others on cultural trends (The Roaring Twenties), a decade (the 1990s), or a prominent person of the time (Napoleon). Often, periods overlap—one period is ending while another begins.

The scholars who put together the Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, organized the historical information into sections that could be considered periods. Study the description of these sections in the Exhibition Overview.

  • What is the common element in most of the periods—important events, cultural trends, decades, or prominent persons who were influential at the time? Which period stands out as being different from the others?
  • Make a list or chart of the periods, showing the years included in each. Where is there overlap? Why do you think the scholars who planned the presentation separated these overlapping periods rather than combining them into one period?
  • What events were taking place at these times? What impact did these events have on African Americans? What, if any, impact did African Americans have on these events?
  • Creating periods is an arbitrary process, shaped by the interests and values of the scholars doing the periodization. Look at the information presented about the “Booker T. Washington Era.” Why might scholars have named this era for Booker T. Washington? What other name might they have given this same span of years? How would changing the name affect your understanding of the era?
  • The last events covered in the Special Presentation occurred in the early 1970s. If you were to add events that have occurred since the 1970s to this presentation on the history of African Americans, what would you call the new period? Explain your answer

Historical Comprehension: Using Historical Maps

Historical maps are valuable sources that allow users to relate historical information to geographic information. For example, maps showing census data can make changes in the population more visible than a table presenting the same data.

Statistical Atlas of the United States Based on the Results of the Eleventh Census

Statistical Atlas of the United States Based on the Results of the Eleventh Census Plate 11. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1898. Lithograph. Geography and Map Division. (5-18)

The Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship features a map showing the distribution of the African American population in 1890. Study the map closely. Then find comparable maps showing the African American population in 1870 and 1880.

  • How is the map showing the 1870 census data different from the other two maps? Why do you think the map shows only part of the nation?
  • Study the patterns of population distribution shown in the three maps. What similarities do you see? What accounts for this persistent pattern?
  • What changes do you see in the distribution of the African American population from 1870 to 1880? From 1880 to 1890? What might account for those changes?
  • What advantages do these historical maps offer in studying changes in population distribution among African Americans in the Reconstruction period? What information would be valuable in helping you interpret the maps?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Explaining Causes

“By Executive Order--President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces.” Chicago Defender, July 31, 1948

"By Executive Order--President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces." Chicago Defender, July 31, 1948 Copyprint from microfilm. Serial and Government Publications Division. (9-2) Courtesy of the Chicago Daily Defender, Chicago, Illinois

The Civil Rights movement was a complex and multi-faceted effort. Strong leaders, committed individuals, community organizations, government officials and agencies—with motivations ranging from outrage to religious faith, belief in constitutional principles, practical political considerations, and commitment to social justice—all played a role in creating change. Read the exhibit section on The Civil Rights Era.

Think of two changes brought about by the civil rights movement. Compare the conditions and ideas that motivated people to seek change as well as the people and organizations that contributed to creating change. Write a generalization about the causes of change in the Civil Rights Era based on your comparison.

Historical Research: Investigating the “Peculiar Institution”

The exhibit section on slavery is subtitled “The Peculiar Institution.” This euphemism for slavery was used in the 1800s. In 1956, historian Kenneth Stampp adopted the phrase as the title of his book challenging the previously prevailing view of slavery. Use online and library resources to learn more about how the phrase was used in the 1800s and by Stampp.

  • What did you learn about what supporters of slavery meant to imply by using this phrase?
  • Why do you think Stampp gave his book this title?
  • Did he accept the implications of the term as it was used in the 1800s?

Look in the exhibit section on abolition for another phrase used to describe slavery. What are the implications of this phrase? What would be the effect if Stampp had titled his book with this phrase?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making: Constructing an Argument for Abolition

Many people living in the United States in the 1800s made an important decision to oppose slavery. Known as abolitionists, these people—black and white, male and female, northern and southern—used a variety of strategies to seek the end of slavery.

Read the exhibit section on Abolition, making two lists as you read. One list should include arguments against slavery. The other list should include strategies used to oppose slavery.

When you have completed the two lists, construct an argument for abolition, using the reasons you have listed and your own ideas. Then choose a strategy for opposing slavery that you think would be effective and explain why you, as an abolitionist, would have employed this strategy.


Arts & Humanities

Socially Conscious Art: Romare Bearden and the Collage

Romare Bearden was a twentieth-century African American artist who worked in a variety of media but is best known for his collages, which he began making during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The move to collage also marked a move to creating socially conscious art; that is, art that comments on or prompts reflection on social problems.

Romare Bearden. Roots Odyssey. Screen print, 1976

Romare Bearden. Roots
. Screen print, 1976. 28 3/4 x 22 7/8...

Collages are works of art created by putting together varied objects to create a new image. The objects may include almost anything that can be affixed to a canvas: photographs,quotations, newspaper articles, letters, legal documents, drawings, ticket stubs, flags, fabric, paper cut into particular shapes, origami creations, and much more. In the case of socially conscious art, the artist often selects particular items because they symbolize some aspect of a social problem. The artist also considers the visual impact of the items, their juxtapositions with one another, and their overall arrangement on the canvas.

The Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship includes two of Bearden’s collages. These collages, each focusing on an aspect of slavery, are Roots Odyssey and Prince Cinqué. Study these collages and answer the following questions:

  • List the items in each collage. What, in your view, does each item represent?
  • How are the two collages similar? What items or similar items appear in each? Why do you think Bearden chose to include similar items in the two collages?
  • How are the two collages different? Consider not only the items used but also how they are arranged on the page and the colors used. How do the differences affect how you respond to each collage?

Choose one of the eras covered in the Special Presentation. Using items from the Special Presentation and the five digital collections that make up the African American Odyssey collection, as well as items you create, make a collage that conveys something about African Americans’ demand for full participation in American society during the selected era. Think about what each item will convey, as well as how you will arrange them and what response the juxtaposition of various objects will elicit.

The Artistic Imagination: Painting of Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation

Many historic events take place out of the spotlight, unobserved by artists, photographers, writers, or reporters. This is particularly true of those moments that involve an individual making an important decision or writing a document that will mark a watershed moment in history. How an artist imagines that moment, while it may be far from the literal truth, can challenge and invite the viewer to think about the event in a new way.

The Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, includes a painting by David Gilmore Blythe, in which he imagines how President Abraham Lincoln looked as he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Study the painting carefully (be sure to look at the entire image and not just the detail shown in the Special Presentation; access the entire painting by clicking on the thumbnail). Answer the questions that follow:

  • What is the overall appearance of the room in which President Lincoln is working? Why do you think the artist portrayed the room in this way?
  • On what is Lincoln’s left hand resting? What is the significance of these two documents?
  • List several other symbols in the room. What was the artist trying to convey by including these symbols?
  • How has this painting changed or stimulated your thinking about this “unobserved historic moment”?

Choose an important decision in African American history. Some examples might be Frederick Douglass’s decision not to participate in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s decision to launch a campaign against lynching, Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the military, or Jackie Robinson’s decision to become the first African American in major league baseball. Research that decision in the African American Odyssey collections. How would you imagine the scene when the decision was made? Sketch or write a prose description of the scene. How does going through this process of exercising your artistic imagination change your thinking about the decision? How might your artistic representation of the decision spark someone else’s thinking?

Satire in Art: The Cartoons of Oliver Harrington

Satire is an art form that is, by definition, socially conscious; in satire, human vices, abuses, or frailties are exposed through ridicule, derision, irony, or other methods, often with the intent of sparking change for the better. Throughout history, artists—in visual arts, literature, music, and the performing arts—have used satire to point out problems in society and stimulate change.

Among the visual artists who employ satire are cartoonists. One of the first great African American cartoonists was Oliver W. Harrington. In 1935, when he was in his mid-twenties, Harrington got a job as a cartoonist at the Amsterdam News, a New York newspaper aimed at an African American audience. His single-panel cartoons ran under the title Dark Laughter.

Study Harrington’s cartoon featured in the Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, (be sure to look at the entire image, not just the detail shown in the Special Presentation). Answer the following questions:

  • Where does the cartoon take place? What can you infer about the location from the name of the inn?
  • When is the action in the cartoon taking place? What clues do you find to the time period?
  • What social issue was Harrington addressing in the cartoon? What tools of satire (e.g., ridicule, derision, irony, parody) did he use?
  • Do you think this cartoon was effective in raising a social issue? Explain your answer.
  • Explain the pun in the title Dark Laughter. Given what you have seen in this one cartoon, do you think this was a good title for Harrington’s cartoon strip? Why or why not?

Find examples of contemporary cartoons that use satire to comment on social issues. Use the first four questions above to analyze each cartoon. Pick one and write a brief review describing why you think the cartoon is effective and why it appeals to you.

Socially Conscious Literature: Arguing for Abolition

The abolitionist movement—the effort to end slavery in the United States—used many different kinds of writing to persuade people of the rightness of their cause. Abolitionists wrote pamphlets and published newspapers. They wrote poems, stories, and novels. They published the life stories of escaped or freed slaves. While Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin were two of the most influential works, many other works also sought to turn the hearts and minds of Americans against slavery.

One abolitionist book featured in African American Odyssey is a children’s book titled The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children. . . This book begins with an introduction to slavery, designed to make children see its injustice, in part by comparing the freedom that white children enjoyed with the situation in which enslaved children found themselves:

…are all the children in America free like you? No, no! I am sorry to tell you that hundreds of thousands of American children are slaves. Though born beneath the same sun and on the same soil, with the same natural right to freedom as yourselves, they are nevertheless SLAVES. Alas for them! Their parents cannot train them as they will, for they too have MASTERS. These masters say to them:

“Your children are OURS—OUR PROPERTY! They shall not be taught to read or write; they shall never go to school; they shall not be taught to read the Bible; they must submit to us and not to you; we shall whip them, sell them, and do what else we please with them. They shall never own themselves, never have the right to dispose of themselves and shall obey us in all things as long as they live.”

From The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children, image 10

The book also includes four stories about enslaved children, including Little Lewis. Three of Lewis’s brothers and sisters and his parents have been sold to other owners, so only he and his little brother Ned remain together. A year after being sold, his mother, unable to work because of mental problems brought on by the loss of her children, is allowed to visit her two young sons. On the visit, she tries to commit suicide. While she recovers, Lewis sits by her bedside and listens to her talk:

She showed him her wrists where they had been worn by the irons, and her back scarred by the whip, and she told him of cruelties that we may not repeat here. She talked with him as if he were a man, and not a child; and as he listened his heart and mind seemed to reach forward, and he became almost a man in thought. He seemed to live whole years in those few days that he talked with his mother. It was here that the fearful fact dawned upon him as it never had before. He was a slave! He had no control over his own person or actions, but he belonged soul and body to another man, who had power to control him in everything.

From The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children, image 39

Lewis decides then to learn to read and to escape from slavery at the first opportunity. Despite great determination, Lewis is prevented from learning to read and slips into depression. At 17, he is traded to another owner for the price of two horses. At his new home, the governess agrees to teach him to read and eventually helps him to escape. While Lewis reaches Boston, where he lives as a free man for the remainder of his life, the governess serves three years in prison for her role in his escape.

  • How would you describe the writing style in The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book? How might the style of a socially conscious work of children’s literature be different today?
  • Which do you think would be most effective in changing children’s minds about slavery—the introduction or the stories? Explain your answer.
  • Outline the plot of “Little Lewis: The Story of a Slave Boy.” What events are most moving to you? Are there any surprises in the plot outline?
  • Read another one of the stories in The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book. Compare the story to the story of Little Lewis. Which story do you think would be more effective in achieving the book’s goal?
  • Find an example of children’s literature about a social issue in the twenty-first century. What similarities do you see to the abolitionist book? What differences? Do you think socially conscious children’s books are a good way to have an impact on social issues? Why or why not?

The Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a highly regarded writer of the Harlem Renaissance. While he wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, autobiographies, histories, and the words to more than one opera, he was best known as a poet. He published his first poem in a national magazine at the age of 19 and continued writing until his death 46 years later. One of the innovations he pioneered was infusing his poetry with the rhythms of jazz and the blues.

The African American Odyssey exhibit features five drafts of a Hughes poem, “Ballad of Booker T.” Examine the five drafts:

  • What do you notice about the revision process? Find at least one example of a change Hughes made that he reversed in a later draft. Why do you think he went back to the original wording or line breaks?
  • What aspects of the poem remained the same through all five drafts? Do you think these consistencies provide clues to Hughes’s vision for the work?
  • The African American Odyssey says that “Although Hughes was quite critical of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy, this poem also evinces his understanding of the circumstances under which Washington labored.” Do you find any evidence in the poem of Hughes’ critical view of Washington? What evidence do you see of empathy for the circumstances in which Washington worked? Do you think you could write an empathetic poem about someone you disagree with? Why or why not?

Find and read one or more of Hughes’s better-known works, such as “Theme for English B,” “Dream Deferred,” “Let America Be America Again,” “Dream Variations,” or “Mother to Son.” Compare these poems to “Ballad of Booker T.” Which do you think best celebrates African American creativity and identity? Explain your answer.

Socially Conscious Music: Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Throughout history, music has played a part in inspiring and uniting people involved in social movements. Music was an important tool of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The song “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem of the movement. Gospel singers like the great Mahalia Jackson often sang at civil rights rallies. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a group called the Freedom Singers to perform around the country, motivating people and raising money for SNCC. Jazz composers such as Max Roach composed new musical works that explored themes of freedom and protest.

Max Roach. We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite

Max Roach. We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite New York: Candid Records, 1960. Record jacket. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. (9-6) Courtesy of Candid Production, LTD

Examine the record jacket for Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.

  • What is shown in the photo on the record jacket? Do you think this photo was a good choice for the jacket of a record titled Freedom Now? Why or why not?
  • How does the text on the record jacket convey the idea that this is socially conscious music? Have you seen a CD jacket in today’s market that makes clear the socially conscious nature of the music?
  • Imagine that you are a record producer in the 1960s, producing a record by an African American artist. The title of the album is “We Shall Overcome.” Look through The African American Odyssey for a photograph or drawing that you might feature on the record jacket. Explain why you think the photograph would make a good cover illustration.

Think about the situations in which you hear music. In each situation, how is music used—for enjoyment, to set a mood, for worship, to inspire or unite people, other purposes? Are any of the uses of music negative (e.g., to incite violence, to encourage drug use)?

The Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a highly regarded writer of the Harlem Renaissance. While he wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, autobiographies, histories, and the words to more than one opera, he was best known as a poet. He published his first poem in a national magazine at the age of 19 and continued writing until his death 46 years later. One of the innovations he pioneered was infusing his poetry with the rhythms of jazz and the blues.

The African American Odyssey exhibit features five drafts of a Hughes poem, “Ballad of Booker T.” Examine the five drafts:

  • What do you notice about the revision process? Find at least one example of a change Hughes made that he reversed in a later draft. Why do you think he went back to the original wording or line breaks?
  • What aspects of the poem remained the same through all five drafts? Do you think these consistencies provide clues to Hughes’s vision for the work?
  • The African American Odyssey says that “Although Hughes was quite critical of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy, this poem also evinces his understanding of the circumstances under which Washington labored.” Do you find any evidence in the poem of Hughes’ critical view of Washington? What evidence do you see of empathy for the circumstances in which Washington worked? Do you think you could write an empathetic poem about someone you disagree with? Why or why not?

Find and read one or more of Hughes’s better-known works, such as “Theme for English B,” “Dream Deferred,” “Let America Be America Again,” “Dream Variations,” or “Mother to Son.” Compare these poems to “Ballad of Booker T.” Which do you think best celebrates African American creativity and identity? Explain your answer.