African American history
A guide to lesson plans, articles, and websites to help bring African American history alive in your classroom.
African American history month, celebrated every February, gives us a great reason to applaud the contributions of African Americans to history, science, art, literature, and culture. But as Kathryn Walbert points out in her article Beyond Black History Month, it’s far more enriching to incorporate African American history into the curriculum on a regular basis. In that spirit, we’ve compiled the following lesson plans, articles, and websites for a wide range of grade levels and subject areas. We hope you’ll use these resources to teach about African American history, culture, and achievements throughout the year.
- Slavery across North Carolina
- Students will read excerpts from slave narratives to gain an understanding of how slavery developed in each region of North Carolina, and how regional differences created a variety of slave experiences. (Grade 8 social studies)
- Teaching about slavery through newspaper advertisements
- Students will analyze a selection of advertisements related to slavery from an 1837 newspaper in order to enhance their understanding of antebellum North Carolina, U.S. history, and the history of American slavery. (Grades 8 and 11 social studies)
- Underground Railroad quilts: Fact or folklore?
- Students explore the controversy surrounding a book entitled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, which was published as a non-fiction account of fugitive slaves sending coded messages through quilt patterns. Students evaluate numerous sources and assess the validity of each in an attempt to determine if the quilt codes are fact or folklore. (Grades 8 and 11–12 information skills and social studies)
- Spirituals and the power of music in slave narratives
- Students will learn about the importance of music in the lives of slaves by reading slave narratives and listening to recordings. (Grade 4 music education and social studies)
- Interracial “harmony” and the Great Awakening
- Students will be introduced to two episodes in 19th century American history, around the time of the Great Awakening, that show glimpses of some positive and negative consequences of interracial interaction in a religious context. The students will examine primary sources from Documenting the American South, and will write a “sermon” from the perspective of a southern itinerant preacher during the Great Awakening arguing for or against religion as a cure for the social ills of racism and slavery. (Grades 11–12 social studies)
- Exploring the church in the southern black community
- Students explore the “Church in the Southern Black Community” collection from Documenting the American South. Beginning with a historian’s interpretation of the primary sources that make up the collection, students search the collection for evidence to describe the experiences of African Americans living in the south during the Antebellum through the Reconstruction Period centering on their community churches. (Grades 8 and 11–12 social studies)
Literature, culture, and the arts
- Personal picture narratives: Jacob Lawrence
- Students will look closely at paintings by Jacob Lawrence depicting historical figures. They will identify Lawrence’s unique style based on the elements of color and shape. Students will create a painting using the same art elements to create a picture depicting an imagined scene from the life of Harriet Tubman. (Grade 2 visual arts education)
- Visualizations: Black poet, Langston Hughes
- Students will develop an understanding of selected poetry of the poet Langston Hughes and how his life influenced his style of writing. The students will reflect on assigned selections of poetry in order to explore the author’s use of figurative language. (Grades 3–4 English language arts and information skills)
- Hidden stories: A three-part lesson in African American history, research, and children’s literature
- Students will create a timeline of African American history, review a work of children’s literature, and then create their own works of children’s literature drawing on a primary source document pertaining to the life of an ordinary African American. (Grades 9–12 English language arts and social studies)
- Learning literary elements through African and African American folktales
- Students will apply their knowledge of literary elements to the analysis of African and African American folktales. Students will draw on their analysis to create their own folktales using similar elements. (Grade 8 English language arts)
- Maya Angelou: Study and Response to “Still I Rise”
- Students will read biographical information about Maya Angelou and her poem, “Still I Rise.” Students will identify support and elaboration in poem, then respond by either writing a letter to the author or his/her own poem in response. (Grade 8 English language arts)
Jim Crow & the Civil Rights Movement
- Race in her lifetime
- Students will trace the life of Rebecca Clark, an African American who was born in rural Orange County just before the Depression and witnessed the changes in civil rights over the years. Students will gain empathy for the challenge African Americans faced in the South, even in what is considered a “liberal” or “progressive” town like Chapel Hill. They will also consider the election of Chapel Hill’s first black mayor, Howard Lee, and the importance of African American participation in the political process.
- Civil Rights protests and dilemmas
- Students will discuss well-known civil rights protests in the context of personal risk. They will also listen to two oral histories where individuals tell a story about a protest, or personal risk, they took in order to promote equality for African Americans. The timing of these oral histories indicates how long the struggle for civil rights has been. The content indicates the unintended dilemmas that may be caused when an individual acts in protest.
- Brown versus Board of Education: Rhetoric and realities
- Students will listen to three oral histories that shed light on political and personal reactions toward the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown versus Board of Education. Though the ruling itself is not mentioned, words like “integration” and “forced busing” refer to the social outcomes as perceived by the speakers. Two oral histories are from prominent Southern politicians, George Wallace and Jesse Helms. The third offers a contrasting opinion from the viewpoint of an African American woman from Charlotte whose children went to integrated schools.
- A record of school desegregation: Conduct your own oral history project
- Students will research the history of school desegregation, and will use their knowledge to conduct oral history interviews with community members. Students will reflect on the experience through writing. (Grade 8 social studies)
- Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech
- Students will display their understanding of the symbolism and references that Dr. King used to enrich his famous speech on August 28, 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by constructing a “jackdaw,” a collection of documents and objects. (Grade 8 English language arts and social studies)
Best practices: Teaching African American history
- Beyond Black History Month
- Go beyond approaches that marginalize African American history by “shifting the lens” to look at events from new perspectives.
- The not-so-famous person report
- Instead of teaching the history of the famous, use research in primary sources to teach students that the past and present were made by people like them.
Historical articles and primary sources
From LEARN NC’s digital textbook for North Carolina history, the following articles and primary source documents explore the history of Africans and their descendants in North Carolina. More coming soon!
- The golden chain
- This creation story told by the Yoruba of West Africa describes how Olorun (the all-powerful being) lived with heavenly beings called orishas around a young baobab tree in the sky, until a curious orisha asked permission to create something solid in the watery world below.
- Africans before captivity
- Most Africans who came to North America were from West Africa and West Central Africa. This article describes some of the cultures and history of those regions prior to the beginning of the slave trade.
- A forced migration
- The first Africans, brought to America through forced migration, came as indentured servants to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Africans brought to the colonies in later years were bought and sold as slaves. At the time of the American Revolution, most of the enslaved people in North Carolina lived in the eastern part of the colony and the majority lived on large plantations, where their work was critical to the state’s cash crops and economy.
- Venture Smith describes his enslavement
- This excerpt from a late eighteenth-century book by a freed slave in Connecticut describes his capture and enslavement at the age of six. Includes historical commentary.
More learning materials about African American history — including multimedia
- Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
- From Emory University, this site provides a database of the names of enslaved Africans and the ships that brought them, as well as lesson plans, essays, and images. A treasure trove of information for those who want to explore the slave trade in more depth.
- Remembering Jim Crow
- This website from American Public Media explores the Jim Crow-era South through interviews with Americans — black and white — who experienced segregation firsthand. Includes audio recordings and transcriptions.
- The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture
- A Library of Congress digital exhibit that covers four topics in African American history: colonization, abolition, migrations, and the WPA. Offers access to digitized photographs, illustrations, letters, and other primary source documents.
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- This companion site for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture provides educational resources, online exhibitions, stories of individual Americans, and links to other information on the web.
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938
- From the Library of Congress, more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
- The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
- The Schomburg Center’s website provides access to its digital exhibits, which document the experiences of peoples of African descent throughout the world. Exhibits feature essays as well as digitized maps, photographs, and documents, and cover topics such as African Americans in American politics and the abolition of the slave trade.
- Jazz Greats Digital Exhibits
- These digital collections from Rutgers University’s Institute for Jazz Studies provide in-depth information about some of the great figures in the history of jazz.
- The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences
- Created by the head of science reference at the University of California Irvine’s library, this site provides profiles of African American men and women who have contributed to the advancement of science and engineering.
- Our Shared History: African American Heritage
- A portal to the National Parks Service websites related to African American heritage. Find lesson plans about Vieuxx Carre (a Creole neighborhood in New Orleans); get a new perspective on the Underground Railroad; view a digital exhibit about Frederick Douglass; and more.