Grade: AP/Honors/101
Subject: Social Studies/History

Essential Question

What is the significance of Reconstruction and what does it reveal about the freedom that the post-Civil War constitutional amendments secured for African Americans?


In this lesson, students learn about Reconstruction and the challenges that African Americans faced when trying to embrace their full humanity and rights as citizens in the years immediately following the Civil War by exploring constitutional amendments, journalistic accounts and primary documents written by and about freedpeople during this time period. While Reconstruction (1865-1877) was an era of extreme violence, terror and disruption for African Americans living in formerly Confederate states, the music that forms the backbone of American popular music– blues, work songs and spirituals– survived and continued to develop during these years.

“It is true we have the Proclamation of January 1863. It was a vast and glorious step in the right direction. But unhappily, excellent as that paper is—and much as it has accomplished temporarily—it settles nothing. It is still open to decision by courts, canons and Congresses.”

– Frederick Douglass “The Mission of War” (1864) 

On June 18th, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with 2,000 federal troops. He came to Texas with general orders to end slavery in the state, which was made illegal nearly two and a half years earlier thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas’ distance from Union territory, however, had made the Emancipation Proclamation nearly impossible to enforce, and the state became a destination for fleeing confederates who wanted to continue to profit by enslaving African Americans. Granger’s arrival in Texas is today celebrated as Junetheenth, a day commemorating the eradication of slavery the United States. 

That Juneteenth occurred two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation is a testament to how wildly variable the process of emancipation and reconstruction were in the United States. Six months before Granger would arrive in Texas, freedpeople across the Atlantic Coast were being given 40 acre parcels of their own land for settlement and agriculture. As Abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized in 1864, the legal rights freedpeople attained during and after the Civil War were only as good as Congress’s and the court’s ability to enforce them. The individuals and socio-political structures that benefited from slavery would not relinquish that power without a fight.

The reconstruction of the United States following the Civil War hinged on The Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery in all states and territories unless a person had been convicted of a crime. While Abraham Lincoln was the president when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the Congress in January 1865, he would be assassinated before it was ratified in December of the same year. During that year Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, and inherited responsibility for carrying out the 13th Amendment. Lincoln added Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, to his ticket in an effort to keep Southern Democrats invested in the federal government. The widely divergent positions of Lincoln and Johnson, left imblanaced after Lincoln’s death, caused Reconstruction to become an unfulfilled promise. 

In 1865, President Lincoln ignored the vigorous protests of many lawmakers who insisted that the African Americans should make their own way forward and created the The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was a massive federal bureaucracy created after the Civil War to aid people who had been enslaved and were now free. It offered services such as legal aid, food, housing and education. Efforts to reunite separated families and settle freedpeople on confiscated or abandoned Confederate lands also fell within the scope of work of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Upon attaining the presidency, Johnson sought to disenfranchise the authority of the Freedmen’s Bureau and related military orders that benefitted freedpeople. In 1866, he reversed General Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, which promised to allot land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for the settlement of freedpeople, and returned the land to former enslavers. Johnson also attempted to veto Freedmen’s Bureau Bills, which expanded the authority of the Freedmen’s Bureau and provided additional rights to freedpeople, including the right to land ownership and education.

Johnson’s attempts to set back the reconstruction were met with mixed success. On March 2, 1867, Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes to pass a series of Reconstruction acts which would, among other things, establish new governments in the ex-Confederate states based for the first time on universal male suffrage. Perceiving an unprecedented moment of political opportunity, African Americans gathered in mass meetings throughout the South to plan their own agenda.

Laws prohibiting anyone elected to office in the Confederacy from serving in local or state government during Reconstruction created a power vacuum which the newly freed African American began to fill. By 1872, 1,510 African Americans held offices ranging from local municipal positions to multiple seats in the United States Senate . Eight black men served together in the U.S. Congress in 1875—a number that would not be matched until 1969, nearly a century later. 

This progress and the pace at which it occurred drew significant backlash across the nation. In the former Confederate states, Black Codes were developed by the state and local officials that criminalized freedpeople, allowing them to be captured and put to work in labor camps and on prison work projects. The New Orleans Massacre of 1866 (also known as the New Orleans Riot) occurred when white residents attacked Black marchers gathered outside a meeting of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention, convened in response to the state legislature enacting Black Codes and limiting suffrage. Forty-eight people, forty-four of them African Americans, died in the violence and another hundred were injured. Throughout the South, threatening campaigns that ranged from pamphleting to the lynching of men, women and children would persist well into the twentieth century. 

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge)
    • About the Blues tradition of Mississippi
    • About the The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, otherwise known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the role it played during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Period
    • How the power structure of slavery required the exploitation of the free labor and sometimes the lives of the enslaved to create profit for the enslavers. 
    • That during Reconstruction African Americans exercised their right to vote and entered public service in significant numbers
    • How African Americans’ attempts to claim the rights and protections which were theirs by law were met with resistance, terror and even death
    • The significance of Juneteenth: June 19, 1865 in Galveston, TX
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to examine the ways that constitutional amendments affected the lives of formerly enslaved people and use primary documents to explore the ways that formerly enslaved people enacted their freedom and citizenship after the Civil War.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell students that they will be assuming the role of ethnographers–social scientists who study people in their own environments. They will be watching a video of a musical performance, and as ethnographers, should practice a type of detailed description that anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” They should observe the subject’s behavior, but also the context behind that behavior (the surrounding environment, the subject’s personal background, etc.). Ask students to take notes that detail the setting of the performance, the performer’s age, attire, body, body language, and anything else they notice.
  2. Play Clip 1, Boyd Rivers & Ruth May Rivers: “Fire In My Bones” (1978). Then ask students:
    • What general observations did you have while watching the video?
    • Where does it seem like the video was shot?
    • How would you describe the singing? Does it seem planned, or spontaneous?
    • What kind of audience might Boyd and Ruth May Rivers play for?
    • How would you describe the music featured in the video? Do the singers seem more professional or amateur? Are they performing for an audience?
    • Who seems to be leading this event?
    • Would you characterize this event as emotional? Why or why not? 
    • What might be the function of this event? 
    • Do any of you have any preconceptions of the guitar? 
    • What do you think of when you think of the guitar?


  1. Tell students that the clip they watched occurred in the state of Mississippi, which was the second state to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Many of the federal laws written during Reconstruction, including the Emancipation Proclamation, would create the most significant challenge to social order and power structures in formerly Confederate states. Pass out to students Handout 1 – Introducing Terms, and work through the definitions together as a class. 
  2. Pass out Handout 2 – Primary Source Documents. Ask students to read Document 1: “Excerpt of Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston” silently as a class. Ask students: 
    • Upon learning that they were free, what action did the community immediately undertake?
    • What was discussed by Kossula and his community upon being freed? What sort of decisions were made?
    • What sort of issues did Kossula face immediately after being freed?
    • Which of the conundrums that Kossula and his community face were most surprising to you?
    • When creating legislation to end slavery, to what extent do you think the U.S. Federal Government considered the issues Kossula and others might experience as freedpeople?
    • What might music mean to people who made the traditional instruments they had been barred from playing immediately upon learning they were free? 
  3. Together as a class read Document 2: The Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction Excerpt. Then ask the class:
    • This legislation speaks about restoring the rights of a particular group of citizens. How would you describe the group whose rights it promises to restore?
    • Where do they live?
    • Why would they welcome news of this law?
  4. Divide the class into 4 groups, and assign each group a piece of legislation (Documents 3-6). After reviewing the document, ask the groups to introduce the document they read and summarize its intent and possible effects. Then ask the class: 
    • Which of the four documents presented might constitute the greatest change for African Americans who had been enslaved? Why?
    • Which document contains the law that you imagine was most difficult to enforce or most easily ignored? Why?
    • Compare the language of the law and the passage from Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. Identify three of the freedpeople’ s concerns that Kossula mentions that are not addressed by the law.
    • Once they became aware of these federal laws, what sort of challenges might freedpeople face in accessing the rights guaranteed by them? (Note to teacher: Encourage students to consider to whom a violation would be reported, the make up of the police force, the court staff, and the jury, etc.)
  5. Ask students to examine Document 7: Lost Friends Ads in Handout 1. Ask students:
    • What do you observe about the names of the seekers and their loved ones? What challenges might their names present?
    • Andy Pates’ journey began in Arkansas and ends in Texas. Why might Texas be a destination for enslavers in other states throughout the Confederacy? Consider General Order No. 3 and why and when it was issued.
  6. Pass out Handout 3 – Lost Friends Ads Activity to student groups. After students complete the worksheet (answer key provided here), ask students:  
    • Who on the chart traveled the farthest? How many miles did they travel? A healthy person can travel 20-30 miles a day. How many days might their trip have taken?
    • Do you have a friend or family member who lives far away? List the ways that you keep in touch. Consider what it might have been like for freedpeople, for whom reading and writing were illegal, to seek their lost friends with newspaper ads like this and word of mouth as the only means of communication.
  7. Ask students to examine Document 8: Radical Members of the First Legislature After the War, South Carolina in Handout 1. Ask students:
    • What do you notice about these legislators? 
    • Are there any women legislators? 
    • Are there any legislators that appear to be Indigenous people?
  8. Once students have identified the fact that the African American legislators have been elected by the African American voters who were granted suffrage, have students read Document 9 in Handout 1. Then ask students: 
    • What might have been the purpose of the I AM Pamphlet? Why was it distributed?
    • How might have African Americans felt upon seeing the pamphlet?
  9. Separately or in groups, ask students to imagine they came across the I Am Pamphlet today. Ask them to rewrite the letter that accompanied the I AM brochure as a brief and clear email. 
  10. Have student volunteers share their email text. Then ask the class:
    • Imagine an African American community living according to the rules outlined in the I AM pamphlet. How would such rules impact this community’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
    • Compare the language of the I AM pamphlet with that of Amendment XV (Document 10). What do you notice about these two documents when reading them side by side?  
    • Who would benefit from African Americans living under the threat of the rules in the I AM Pamphlet.
  11. Read Document 10: Amendment XV Excerpt. Then ask these discussion questions:
    • What right does this amendment protect?
    • What in the primary source documents we have looked at speaks to the need for the 15th Amendment?

Summary Activity:

  1. Tell students that they will be watching the Clip 1, Boyd Rivers & Ruth May Rivers: “Fire In My Bones” (1978) once again. Pass out Handout 4 – Boyd Rivers and Ruth May Rivers “Fire In My Bones”. Have student volunteers read the introduction aloud, and then read through the lyrics silently as the video plays. 
  2. After playing the clip, ask students:
    •  Considering what you know now about the reconstruction, how would you describe the mood of this song? 
    • What emotion would you guess the singer feels when they sing the phrase “fire in my bones”?
    • What does the knowledge of Reconstruction history change about the way you hear this Blues song? What additional significance might this song have based on this history?
  3. Show Image 1, Writing Prompt, and have students follow the prompt given. Collect responses, or have students present their responses to the class.

Explore Further:

  1. Books
    • Amiri Baraka, Blues People  (Harper Perennial)
    • Bernice Johnson Reagon,  If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (University of Nebraska Press)
  2. Websites
  3. Audio Recordings


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Craft and Structure 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Text Types and Purposes 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric

Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 7: Production, Distributions, and Consumption
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make music.
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

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