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 TeachersImmorality and Intolerance: The Mann Act of 1910

Lesson Plans

Download the Educator's Guide (PDF)

For additional classroom content, please visit PBS TeacherSource.


Social Studies (U.S. History), Civics


Students will:

  • Recognize the origins and application of the Mann Act of 1910.

  • Describe the factors related to Jackson's conviction under the Mann Act.

  • Debate whether Jackson should be pardoned for what has alleged to be his violation of the Mann Act.

  • Explain the circumstances in the early 20th century that led young women to prostitution (thus the resultant Mann Act).



Teacher note: It is assumed students have viewed the segments of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson dealing with Johnson's prosecution under the Mann Act (the segments "I Am Not a Slave" and "Everybody Skips," beginning at approximately 24 minutes into Episode Two and ending at approximately 59 minutes). Students should have some background on the socioeconomic and political conditions of the United States during the early part of the 20th century.

Ask students to briefly imagine the state of affairs in the United States during the early 20th century (with emphasis on 1910-1920), basing their thoughts on their historic knowledge of this era and references in the Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. (From the film, students may note racism, poverty, gambling, illegal drinking, and prostitution).

Provide students with some background on life during this timeframe. You can begin the short history lesson by asking students to analyze data from this decade:

Life Expectancy:Male 48.4 years
Female 51.8 years
Average Salary:$750 / year
Ziegfeld girls earned:$75 / week
National Debt:$1.15 billion
Source: American Cultural History: The Twentieth Century 1910-1919

You may also read this section to the students (or they can read it themselves), which highlights the socioeconomic challenges of the times:

The Progressive Era lasted from 1895 until World War I. This was a period of unrest and reform. Monopolies continued in spite of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Social problems flourished in the U.S. During the 1910s labor unions continued to grow as the middle classes became more and more unhappy. Unsafe working conditions were underscored by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 145 female workers were killed. Children were hired to work in factories, mills, and mines for long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Though efforts to pass a federal law proved unsuccessful, by the middle of this decade every state had passed a minimum age law. A commission found that up to 20% of the children living in cities were undernourished, education took second place to hunger and while children worked, only one-third enrolled in elementary school and less than 10% graduated from high school. The status of the Negro worsened. Skilled Negro workers were barred from the AF of L. Women were also striving for equality. The first suffrage parade was held in 1910 - the 19th amendment finally ratified in 1919.
Source: American Cultural History: The Twentieth Century 1910-1919

Discuss with students how they might have addressed these social and economic ills had they been lawmakers or policy makers during this timeframe. What types of laws might they have established? What policies would they have enacted to assist the poor and eliminate racism?

Draw students back to the film to introduce prostitution/white slavery. Based on what they know of the early part of the 20th century, and the conditions and status of women, how did prostitution come into play? How prevalent was prostitution? Students can conduct additional research to probe these questions. (Note Web resources.)

Ask students to describe what they understand about The Mann Act of 1910. What was it meant to abolish? Under what conditions was it established? Whom did it target?

Distribute text of the Mann Act for students to review and discuss. Ask them to summarize the essence of the law and how it was used during the early 20th century (basing part of their knowledge on jack Johnson's experiences and additional research). What was the law designed to prevent and could it, in fact, curb prostitution and suspend the activities of those who promoted and/or participated in it? There are those who argue that the act was a politicization of morality and was so poorly crafted, that it went against the basic tenets of democracy.

Divide students into small groups, each one assigned to read one of the following pieces (each group has a different one).

Instruct students to analyze the articles to identify factors (i.e., racism, government inability to rectify socioeconomic challenges, underemployment, immigration, etc.) that made the Mann Act questionable in terms of its purpose and application.

Based on their analysis of the Mann Act, and how it was used with Jack Johnson, ask students to consider whether Jackson was guilty of a crime. Explain that there are people, including Ken Burns and several U.S. Senators, who seek to pardon Jackson, claiming that he did not violate the law, and that he was merely targeted for his race, his success as an African American boxer, his public engagement with white women, and his blatant "sporting life" activities.

Divide students into groups of four — two students for and students against pardoning Jack Johnson for what has been viewed as his violation of the Mann Act. Students. Students can refer to lesson handouts, web resources noted below, and other research to support their stances. (Students may read Ken Burns's Los Angeles Times op-ed piece Mr. President, Pardon Jack Johnson or the Infinite Boxing article A Pardon for Jack Johnson? to generate ideas for their arguments.)

Assessment Suggestions:

Assess students' analytical capability when examining the reasons and uses of the Mann Act during the early 20th century (group discussion/observation, oral presentation, reenactment). Measure student comprehension of early 20th century social and economic conflicts (quiz, essay, debate). Evaluate student ability to illustrate and solve social/economic challenges (project focused: e.g., amendments to Mann Act or creation of new legislation; establishment of policies to improve lives of working poor, etc.).


Students can:

  • Assess the status of African Americans and other people of color and/or immigrants in the United States during the early part of the 20th century.

  • Create a timeline of instances in which the Mann Act has been applied since its inception. Then, analyze its impact during specific periods of time by looking at who was convicted and the reasons they were convicted — what do these events suggest about the law and who was targeted?

  • Assume the role of social and economic policymakers during the timeframe of the Mann Act's creation and establish practical strategies for moving young girls away from prostitution (i.e., free schooling, job training, etc.).

  • Document the shift in attitudes toward and treatment of boxers of color (principally African-American) during the 20th century.

  • Create a diagram or chart that outlines the qualities of someone living "the sporting life".

Online Resources:

The Mann Act / Jack Johnson Pardon:

The Mann Act - Full Text
The complete text of the White-Slave Traffic Act, as passed by the Sixty-First Congress on June 25, 1910.

Unforgivable Blackness: Knockout
This section of the Unforgivable Blackness Web site describes the history of the Mann Act, and Johnson's prosecution under the Act.

The Mann Act: Amendments
This page shows the Mann Act as it has been amended by Congress since 1910.

Mr. President, Pardon Jack Johnson
This op-ed piece by Ken Burns, printed in the Los Angeles Times on July 13, 2004, calls on President Bush to issue a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson.

Senate Pardon Resolution
This Senate Resolution, passed by Unanimous Consent on October 4, 2004, calls on the President to issue a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson.

Commentary: Fairness calls for Jack Johnson's Posthumous Pardon
This article on BlackAmericaWeb.com by Gregory Kane, columnist for the Baltimore Sun, advocates a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson.

Early 20th Century Life:

Historical Context: The Scottsboro Trials
For background on racially-motivated prosecutions, this article probides information on the Scottsboro rape trials, which partially inspired Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

An Outline of American History: America in the 1920s
This section of the hypertext document "From Revolution to Reconstruction: A Hypertext on American History from the colonial period until Modern Times" by the Department of Humanities Computing at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, provides historical background on America in the 1920s.

Mind Your Business! One Woman's Encounter with Reformers
Anzia Yesierska's short story, "The Free Vacation House," paints the middle-class reformers who ran settlement houses as meddling busybodies who disregard the heroine's right to dignity and privacy.

Child Labor in America 1908-1912
From HistoryPlace.com, a gallery of photographs of children in sweatshops by Lewis W. Hine.

Photographs from the Chicago Daily News 1902-1933
This collection from the American Memory project at the Library of Congress comprises over 55,000 images of urban life captured on glass plate negatives between 1902 and 1933 by photographers employed by the Chicago Daily News, then one of Chicago's leading newspapers.


Wikipedia: White Slavery
Wikipedia entry on white slavery. Wikipedia is a free content encyclopedia, written collaboratively by contributors from all around the world.

Loose Women or Lost Women? The re-emergence of the myth of 'white slavery' in contemporary discourses of 'trafficking in women'
A paper by Jo Doezema of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, presented to the 1999 International Studies Convention and published in Gender Issues, Vol. 18, no. 1, Winter 2000.

Wikipedia: Prostitution
Wikipedia entry on prostitution. Wikipedia is a free content encyclopedia, written collaboratively by contributors from all around the world.

The Elimination of Prostitution? Moral Purity Campaigns, Middle-Class Clubwomen, and the California Red Light Abatement Act
An article by Patricia O'Flinn, published in Ex Post Facto, a history journal at San Francisco State University.


Langum, David. Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.)

Ritter, Lawrence S. East Side, West Side: Tales of New York Sporting Life, 1910-1960 Total Sports Publishing: New York. 1998.


Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

  • U.S. History Standards 20 and 22: Understands how Progressives and others address problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption; Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression.

  • Civics Standards 14 and 18: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life; Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.

  • Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.

About the Author:

Michele Israel has been an educator in varied capacities for more than 20 years. As founder and director of Educational Consulting Group, Israel has served nonprofit and other educational institutions, providing services including strategic planning, educational product development and project management. She is a writer across venues, with particular emphasis on the development of educational products. Israel has written for PBS (and myriad affiliates), Education World, Newsweek's Education Program, and WETA. Ms. Israel is currently employed by United Jewish Communities in New York City, where she creates marketing collateral for the Planned Giving and Endowment Department.