Unforgivable Blackness: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

About the Film Rebel of the Progressive Era Sparring The Fight of the Century Knockout Ghost in the House For Teachers
For TeachersDefying Convention: A World of Black and White

Lesson Plans

Download the Educator's Guide (PDF)

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American History, Sociology, Civics


Students will examine the history of interracial marriage in the context of Jack Johnson's life.


Show portions of Part Two of Unforgivable Blackness that deal with miscegenation. (If you do not have time to show the film from the beginning, start at "I Am Not a Slave" at approximately 24 minutes into Episode Two and end with "Hotter Than Hell" at approximately 59 minutes.)

Ask students to compare these two quotes from the program:

The black brute who lays his hands upon a white woman ought not have any trial and all the white manhood of South Carolina want to know is that they have the right man and they will have no trial. If we cannot protect our white women from black fiends, where is our boasted civilization? — Cole Blease, Governor of South Carolina, 1912
Every race-loving Negro, irrespective of his intellectual development, must indefatigably denounce Johnson's debased allegiance with the other race's women and only express our feeling [that]…he will get everything that is coming to him as far as the law is concerned.
The Birmingham Exchange
  • What upset white people, what upset black people about Johnson's preference for white women? How would you compare the basis for the responses of whites and blacks?

  • Do you feel that Johnson's romantic preferences were anybody's business but his own? Does he deserve to be thought less a hero because of his preferences? Why or why not?

  • Laws governing the right to marry have always been left up to the states. In 1910, 28 states forbade interracial marriages between blacks and whites. In 1912, Congressman S.A. Roddenberry of Georgia introduced a constitutional amendment that tried to make all interracial marriages in America illegal. (It failed to pass.) What similarities and differences do students see between the furor in America over interracial marriage and that over the marriage of same-sex couples today?

A "Mixed Race" Couple in a Segregated World

Introduce the term miscegenation and ask the class what problems segregation posed for a couple of mixed racial backgrounds.

Read this quote to the class about a trip that Jack Johnson and Etta Duryea Johnson took together on an ocean liner and ask them to spell out why the couple needed special accommodations.

The delicate question as to what part of the liner Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were to dine in was decided by Chief Steward Tragee, who had a small table set up for them in the dining saloon at the foot of the companionway leading from the promenade deck.
The New York Times, June 17, 1911

Walk the class through the problems an interracial couple faced during the Jim Crow era.

  • Where would the offspring of mixed race couples fit in? How did they pose a challenge to a world divided into either black or white? Why did many African-Americans try to "pass" into the white world? What privileges were they permitted by white society if they hid their African-American heritage?

  • Anti-miscegenation laws were the longest lasting form of legalized racial discrimination in the United States. In 1967, 13 years after Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws. Alabama was the last state to remove an anti-miscegenation law from its books, in 2000 (although the law was no longer legally viable).

Ask students: Why do you think it took the Supreme Court so long to declare anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional? A total of 30 states passed anti-miscegenation laws, most in the West and South. Sixteen of these states kept them on the books until 1967.

  • How did Colonial laws regulating slavery and sexual relations between Europeans and Africans lead to a definition of race in America?

  • Were anti-miscegenation laws aimed at preventing whites and blacks from marrying extended to other races? Where, when and why did this process unfold?

  • Were the anti-miscegenation laws aimed at maintaining the so-called "purity" of each "race", or were they designed solely to maintain the "purity" of the white "race"?

  • What privileges went along with a racial classification of "Caucasian" and how did the one-drop rule (that one drop of Negro blood made you Negro) maintain that privilege?

  • On what legal principles were the anti-miscegenation laws predicated?

Extension Activities:

  • In order to understand the history of anti-miscegenation laws in U.S. history ask the class to make a timeline.

  • Investigate and compare the legal basis for instating or voiding anti-miscegenation laws in three court cases:
         Pace v. State of Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court, 1883
         Perez v. Sharp, California Supreme Court, 1948
         Loving v. Virginia, U.S. Supreme Court, 1967

  • Compare today's debate about the right to marry a person of the same sex to the fight against anti-miscegenation laws.

  • Research and write about the history of interracial romances in the American cinema. When/how were these romances depicted? What do the changes reflect about American society? (Examples: Showboat, Raintree County, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?)

  • Standards:

    The teaching activities in this guide were designed to meet curriculum standards outlined below where applicable. However, we recommend that you closely examine the resource content for your individual classroom needs.

    American History from the National Center for History in the Schools

    • Era 6. Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.

    • Era 9. Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

    Civics and Government from the National Standards for Civics and Government

    Standard III. D.
    • The place of law in American society; judicial protection of the rights of individuals.

    Standard V. B.
    • What are the rights of citizens; explain the importance to the individual and to society of such personal rights as due process of law and equal protection; freedom of expression and association; how personal rights are secured…by such means as the rule of law.

    Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

    • Social Sciences (Behavioral Studies) Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.

    • Historical Understanding Standards 1 and 2: Understands how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns; Understands the historical perspective.

    • United States History Standards: Understands issues and perspectives of different groups during the Progressive era; Understands the social and cultural influence of former slaves in cities of the North.

    • Language Arts Standards: Writes persuasive compositions; Understands the philosophical assumptions and basic beliefs underlying an author's work; Uses a variety of criteria; Understands how the type of media affects coverage of events or issues; Understands the ways in which image-makers carefully construct meaning; Understands the role of the media in addressing social and cultural issues.

    About the Author:

    Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years. She is co-author of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature and creator of the American Letters series published by Interact. Joan’s articles have appeared regularly in Social Education, and her work can be found at the Web sites of the National Archives, PBS TeacherSource, and the National Council for Teachers of English. Joan is currently serving on the PBS TeacherSource Advisory Group and on the International Activities Committee of the National Council for the Social Studies.