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Create a Magic Lantern Show: Freedpeople in the Reconstruction South

In this activity students create a "magic lantern show," or presentation that illustrates how African American defined freedom for themselves after emancipation and the challenges and threats they faced. Students use primary sources from the Reconstruction period. This activity can accompany a viewing of the film Dr. Toer's Amazing Magic Lantern Show: A Different View of Emancipation.


  • Students will be able to describe how, after the Civil War, freedpeople acted on their freedom by reuniting with family and getting married.

  • Students will be able to identify the ways freedpeople attempted to secure their citizenship status by voting, establishing schools, and holding elected office.

  • Students will understand that freedpeople believed land ownership was crucial to their economic self-sufficiency and that freedpeople had a right to the land they had worked.

  • Students will be able to describe the methods of physical violence and intimidation used by white southerners in response to freedpeople's attempts to exercise their political and economic rights.  

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


Step 1: (Optional) Have students view the film Dr. Toer's Amazing Magic Lantern Show: A Different View of Emancipation (30 minutes) or read selected passages from the Dr. Toer's viewing guide.  Pages 1-2 of the viewing guide explain who Dr. Toer was.  

Step 2: Divide students into groups of 4-6 students.  Give each student a worksheet and each group a packet of the documents.  Review the three historical understandings on the worksheet, making sure that students understand what all the words mean.  

Project each of the documents and discuss them as a class.  As students listen to discussion, they should decide whether each document is an example of what was done "to" "for" or "by" freedpeople during Reconstruction and note that on their worksheets.  

Step 3: (Optional) Divide students into pairs.  Give each student a copy of the "Meanings of Freedom: Voices of Freedpeople During Reconstruction" worksheet.  With their partners, students should read the quotes from freedpeople and rewrite each in their own words.  

Note: Step 3 is a modification for ESL/ELL students.  

Step 4: Each group's task is to create a magic lantern show (presentation) that illustrates at least one of the historical understandings from the worksheet.  (The teacher may opt to assign historical understandings to each group.)  Students should prepare to share their lantern shows with the class.  

Students' lantern shows should include: 

  • 6 slides

  • At least one, but up to three, of the historical understandings

  • A title, a series of slides, and a narration

The presentation, through slides or narration, should incorporate at least TWO of the text documents in the packet

Students should create their presentations in one of these formats: poster presentation, powerpoint or Smartboard.

Step 5:  (Optional)  Pass out historical understanding cards to students (one card with each historical understanding).  As students listen to each other's presentations, they should decide which historical understanding(s) it illustrates.  At the end of each presentation, ask students to hold up the correct card(s).  The presenting group should tell whether the class has guessed correctly or not.  For this strategy, it is helpful to color-code the historical understanding cards so that it is easy to tell at a glance if students are on the right track. 

Historical Context

At the end of the Civil War, a freed slave and Baptist minister named J.W. Toer traveled the South holding public meetings of men and women recently freed from slavery. HIstorical documents show that these meetings featured a "magic lantern show" entitled "The Progress of Reconstruction," which illustrated the enormous changes then taking place in the South. Dr. Toer's journey took place in the Reconstruction years, 1865-1877, when Americans grappled with the effects of the Civil War and Emancipation. Four million black men and women made the enormous leap from slavery to freedom and citizenship. With slavery dead, the social and economic foundations of southern society had to be rebuilt. It was potentially a revolutionary moment, full of fear and promise. Its outcome would shape the lives of African Americans—indeed, the lives of all Americans—for generations to come.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2009.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Create a Magic Lantern Show: Freedpeople in the Reconstruction South,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 24, 2024,

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