Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Debate: How Should African Americans Achieve Equality?

In this activity students role play a debate among four African-American leaders at the turn of the century, about what strategy the black community should adopt to achieve full equality in the twentieth century. Students research their roles by reading and analyzing primary sources. This activity can work as a follow-up to viewing the film Up South: African-American Migration in the Era of the Great War.


  • Students will understand how different African-American leaders proposed achieving equality, by pursuing either economic or political equality first.  

  • Students will be able to describe four different perspectives on changing the conditions of the black community in the early twentieth century.


Step 1: Analyzing the Documents

Divide the class into groups of four and give each group a packet of all the documents. Each group member should choose ONE of the characters to play in the debate. (There are two documents for Washington and DuBois, so the teacher can create groups of more than four and allow two people to work on those characters.)  The group members will debate the best strategy for change in the black community from the perspective of the writer of his or her document.  

Step 2: Preparing to Debate 

Students prepare to debate from the perspectives of their characters, by answering the questions on the worksheet. Students should be able to summarize and present their characters' views and anticipate what other characters might say.  

Step 3: Presenting the Views from the Documents 

Each group member, pretending to be the person who wrote their assigned document, should present that person's view on the best strategy to the rest of the group.  Each character has one minute for his or her opening statement.

Step 4: Debate

When everyone has presented his or her view, students should continue discussing and debating the best strategy for African Americans to achieve equality in the twentieth century.  They should use the documents and their authors as the basis for the debate; they should strive to STAY IN CHARACTER. 

Step 5: Reaching a Consensus

By the end of the debate, group members should try to reach a consensus--a compromise on which everyone can agree--about what strategy African Americans should pursue to achieve equality.  Students should refer to their worksheets, thinking about what their characters would and would not compromise on.   

Step 6: Report to the Class 

Members of each group should share with their classmates what kind of consensus they reached. If the group was unable to reach a consensus, they should explain why not.


Historical Context

In the years after Reconstruction, African Americans debated the best course of action for ensuring their future “progress.” At the end of the 19th century, many blacks were poor, uneducated tenant farmers in the South. They also had to contend with the social and political burden of “Jim Crow” laws and the terror of lynching. African Americans faced a major dilemma: which should they attack first, their economic problems or their social and political problems? Four famous black advocates offered varying solutions to this question.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
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, “Debate: How Should African Americans Achieve Equality? ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 18, 2021,

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