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Primary Source Lab: A Lesson in Black Sources, Archives, and Methods

Updated: Jan 14

After students in my African American History II course read Allison Dorsey's article, "Black History Is American History: Teaching African American History in the Twenty-First Century," and attended my virtual lecture on the "History of African American History,' I introduced them to Primary Source Lab 1. As a kind of teaching pedagogy, my attempt for them to see three things working in tandem:


It takes the collective work of educators, historians, and archivists to understand how the field of African American History came into being and to understand how it continues to transform itself.


The Primary Source Lab opens with me defining the terms primary source as well as archive; and, I explained examples of each. The first lesson focused on the Civil War as well as Reconstruction. It centered largely collections of the Freedmen's Bureau. According to the National Archives:


“The records left by the Freedmen's Bureau through its work between 1865 and 1872 constitute the richest and most extensive documentary source available for investigating the African American experience in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Historians have used these materials to explore government and military policies, local conditions, and interactions between freedpeople, local white populations, and Bureau officials.”


I next gave the students an overview of the range of different types of sources (some from National Archives, some from other places). We closed the virtual class with me breaking the class into a group and debriefing on the pre-selected sources I sent to them ahead of time. Those sources included:


General Benjamin F. Butler Reacts to Self-Emancipating People, 1861

Summary: "Black Americans hoped that the end of the Civil War would create an entirely new world, while white southerners tried to restore the antebellum order as much as they could. Most former enslavers sought to maintain control over their laborers through sharecropping contracts. P.H. Anderson of Tennessee was one such former enslaver. After the war, he contacted his former enslaved laborer Jourdon Anderson, offering him a job opportunity. The following is Jourdon Anderson’s reply." -The American Yawp Reader


Jourdon Anderson Writes His Former Enslaver, 1865

Summary: "Black Americans hoped that the end of the Civil War would create an entirely new world, while white southerners tried to restore the antebellum order as much as they could. Most former enslavers sought to maintain control over their laborers through sharecropping contracts. P.H. Anderson of Tennessee was one such former enslaver. After the war, he contacted his former enslaved laborer Jourdon Anderson, offering him a job opportunity. The following is Jourdon Anderson’s reply." -The American Yawp Reader


Mississippi Black Code, 1865

Summary: "Many southern governments enacted legislation that reestablished antebellum power relationships. South Carolina and Mississippi passed laws known as Black Codes to regulate black behavior and impose social and economic control. While they granted some rights to African Americans – like the right to own property, to marry or to make contracts – they also denied other fundamental rights. Mississippi’s vagrant law, excerpted here, required all freedmen to carry papers proving they had means of employment. If they had no proof, they could be arrested, fined, or even re-enslaved and leased out to their former enslaver." -The American Yawp Reader


Each group discussed how their source related to the following question: How did African Americans respond to emancipation?


They concluded by sharing the conversations with the group and posing new questions of their various sources. We talked about potential research methods to help them think about next steps.


I asked for feedback, since this was our first time attempting the lab together. Here are some of the highlights:

-"It was interesting. I am looking forward to connecting our history to our present, and understanding what in the archives and journal entries are kept hidden or misinterpreted. I also wanted to learn more about the people who made great impacts throughout the hardships of being 'free'."


-"I enjoyed it because I was able to hear what others thought about a document we all read. Allowing everyone to share their own opinions helps people to gain other perspectives. I don't think anything needed to be improved. the groups were the perfect size. everyone had an opportunity to speak."


-"I had forgotten [some of the reading] but reading and discussing about it brought back all the ideas, I believe it would be the same for others as well."


-"I think the exercise was good, spitting groups and discussing the issue of the subject is very interesting so we can learn about each other’s personal views."


- "I liked this exercise because we get split into small groups and talk about the issue on the articles instead having to speak in front of everybody."


-"I actually did like it. And being in groups does help talking about the sources."


- "I liked it, I just wished it was more clear on what we had to do regarding the question and in the group."


So, should students trust all records that are in archives to tell me what life was like in the past? No. I teach them to think of their research method and to apply it uniformly.


The first step at getting them to understand what a research method could potentially look like is having them learn to ask thoughtful questions of their sources. The National Archives developed Document Analysis Worksheets to help students engage with primary documents.


I do think that it is interesting to note that I was only able to find 1:3 of these original sources online--had hoped to begin by having students see the various textures and range of document forms.


I do think there is space to consider more meaningfully what black sources could be digitized as open data for students to access. With that being said, the National Archives' ALIC (Archives Library Information Center) compiled a list of Black History Resources . It includes records, essays, online exhibitions, and etc. from the National Archives, Smithsonian, other governmental agencies, and non-governmental agencies. The list is rich and very robust.


The first lab covers the period from the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is easiest to access the "Freedmen and Southern and Southern Society Project," at the University of Maryland for transcriptions (but, not originals) of an impressive sampling of Freedmen's Bureau records.


The National Archives, nonetheless, has a large platform based on crowd-sourced lessons from educators called DocsTeach. Here is a video overview of how the platform works. Here are links to their worksheets:













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