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Lesson 2 - Wilson and African Americans

"The president is the American People's one authentic trumpet, and he has no higher duty than to give a clear and certain sound."
- Clinton Rossiter, The American Presidency

Grade Level: Grades 7 through 12

In the American Experience documentary, Woodrow Wilson, historian John Milton Cooper ranks Wilson's presidency as one of the five greatest in American history. This lesson focuses on what makes a great president, and asks students to formulate their own criteria for judging the effectiveness of a president. It then introduces the theme of the lesson: Woodrow Wilson's failure to support racial justice in America.
In order to learn about Wilson's presidency through the eyes of African Americans, students will be divided into the staffs of three newspapers that forged the fight for equal justice during these years:

The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois
>   Boston Guardian, edited by William Monroe Trotter
  Chicago Defender, edited by Robert S. Abbott

Writing for their papers, students will cover a variety of topics about the achievements and struggles of the African American community. After students have written and then read each other's newspapers, they reassess Wilson's presidency and consider how to balance his accomplishments against his failures.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Relevant National Standard

Objectives Through the lesson, students will:

Learn about the domestic and international successes and failures of Wilson's administration.
Learn about the fight waged by African Americans to attain rights from 1912-1920.
Learn about the contributions made by African Americans to American literature, music, sciences, etc. of the time period.
Learn to research and write newspaper articles.
Learn to think critically about issues in American history.

Estimated Time
Many distinct teaching activities in this lesson could be taught, ranging in duration from one to three class periods. Completing the entire unit of activities would require approximately six to eight 45-minute class periods.

Necessary Materials

The American Experience documentary, Woodrow Wilson, on DVD or on video cassette.
Access to computers on the Web.
Writing materials.
Materials for putting together a newspaper either manually, using "cut and paste" techniques, or using a computer desktop publishing program such as Pagemaker.
A photocopying machine to print multiple copies of students' newspapers.

Teaching Procedure

Activity 1: Wilson's Legacy

Show the introduction of episode one of Woodrow Wilson, after the opening funding sequence beginning at approximately 2 minutes and 47 seconds and ending at 6 minutes and 32 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 1, titled "Early Years.") Lead a discussion with students, asking them to focus on the statement made by historian John Milton Cooper: "I think there's no question that Wilson was one of the five greatest Presidents in American history."
After viewing this segment, ask students to recall some of the things that historians have stated which make Woodrow Wilson an outstanding president. Then ask students to recall some of Wilson's failures as well. You may also want to instruct students to explore the special feature on this Web site on Wilson's Legacy, which explores many of Wilson's achievements, as well as some of his shortcomings.
Ask students how they think historians go about ranking presidents. What are some possible criteria that could be used in reaching such a judgment? How could a president's accomplishments be weighed against the failures in the final balance sheet of his or her place in history? Put the name of several presidents on the board and let students debate these issues in the context of what they know about them.
As a homework assignment (or in small groups during class time) ask students to list their criteria for ranking a president's place in history. Ask them to make a list of their top five greatest presidents, then ask students to offer an example of one in their top five. Students should be prepared to defend their choice. Use Article II of the U.S. Constitution to review the powers of the president. For homework, or in class discussion, ask students to make a list of these presidential powers for use in the next activity. Discuss how these powers might be abused.
Next, inform students that they are going to study Woodrow Wilson's place in history based on his many well-known accomplishments, but that they are also going to investigate a serious failure that is often overlooked in textbooks. The failure concerns his attitude towards racial justice in the United States.

Activity 2: Segments from the Documentary
In order to understand how Wilson's early upbringing may have influenced him, show students the following segment from episode one of the documentary:

Six-minute section on Wilson's childhood beginning at approximately 6 minutes and 32 seconds and ending at 12 minutes and 25 seconds. (On the DVD, access the middle part of chapter 1, titled "Early Years.")
Three minute section on Wilson's years as a student at Princeton beginning at approximately 12 minutes and 25 seconds and ending at 15 minutes and 45 seconds. (On the DVD, access the last part of chapter 1, titled "Early Years.")
Wilson was born in 1856 and spent his childhood in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. Ask students to discuss early influences on Wilson's life, including the assessment that "no event dominated Wilson's childhood like the Civil War."
After viewing these segments, write the topics "race relations," "war" and "character traits" on the board. Ask students to create a portrait of the young Wilson by making inferences based on information in the film. As the students raise points, place them under the appropriate headings on the board.
Review with students the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) and the comment that Wilson "believed it was time to withdraw Northern troops and give control of the region back to white Southerners." What were some of the problems faced by African Americans in the South at this time? Would African Americans have agreed with Wilson's assessment that it was time to withdraw Federal troops? Why or why not?
For background information, ask students to review their textbooks, or read the background essays at the Web site of the Constitutional Rights Foundation. For "Race and Voting in the Segregated South" go to; for "The Southern 'Black Codes'" go to African American men traditionally voted for the Republican Party, the party that had won the Civil War. But Wilson, a Democrat, won the support of many black men in the election of 1912 and furthered their hopes in the early years of his presidency. What about Wilson's policies would have appealed to black voters? Show the following two segments from episode one of the documentary and then follow with a discussion:

Five-minute section on Wilson's career as a college professor beginning at approximately 22 minutes and 14 seconds and ending at 27 minutes and 7 seconds. (On the DVD, access the second part of chapter 2, titled "Love & Career.")
Three-minute section on Wilson's record on race relations beginning at approximately 1 hour, 7 minutes and 8 seconds and ending at 1 hour, 10 minutes and 18 seconds. (On the DVD, access the second part of chapter 7, titled "First Family.")

According to the list of presidential powers the class made in Activity 1, what could a president have done to further the interests of African Americans in their pursuit of:

Voting rights
Economic opportunities

Why would these have been difficult years in which to effect these changes in American life? Which of these changes was being advocated most strongly by the foremost black leader of the day, Booker T. Washington. Which of these issues was Washington putting on the "back burner," and why?
For speeches by Booker T. Washington, visit the Library of Congress Web site at
Ask students what they would have done to improve racial justice at this time had they been president. Now pose the question of what Wilson actually did or did not do in support of equal justice for African Americans. You may also show the three-minute section in episode 2 which discusses Wilson's admiration for the film The Birth of A Nation beginning at approximately 43 minutes and 36 seconds and ending at 45 minutes and 51 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 13, titled "Backlash.")
Now ask for student reactions to Wilson's record on race. Why was the imposition of segregation in federal offices (as opposed to those in the states) a national affirmation of segregation? What was Wilson's defense for his actions?
What were William Monroe Trotter's demands? How do his demands contrast with Booker T. Washington's? How could the African American community and their supporters have continued to push the president to further their goals during Wilson's two terms? Ask students for suggestions.

Activity 3: The Black Press During the Wilson Years

Tell students that they are going to study the African American community through its very vocal press during Wilson's administration. According to Lerone Bennet Jr. in Before the Mayflower, "When white periodicals continued to insult Negro readers by playing up 'Negro crime' and playing down Negro achievement, black Americans turned to an increasingly articulate Negro press for an interpretation of the world in which they lived. As the Negro public increased in literacy, the number of Negro papers increased." So did their militancy.
Before beginning this activity, have students explore the DVD's or this Web site's section on Wilson and African Americans. Wilson and African Americans) This section features several streaming video clips with material relating to race relations not included in the documentary. These clips delve into the following subjects: W.E.B. Du Bois' creation of The Crisis; African American soldiers during the war; Wilson's appeal to black voters; and the controversy over the film, The Birth of a Nation. Additional information about the Wilson administration can be found in students' textbooks, or by viewing the rest of the documentary. Additional Web sites are listed below.
Divide the class into newspaper reporters for one of the three newspapers listed below. Each of these journals was an important instrument of social change in its day. Each student newspaper will publish one issue set in 1920 in which it will assess the progress and setbacks of the black community during Wilson's tenure in office. But each student newspaper will have a different main focus.

Boston Guardian
The Guardian was founded in 1901 and edited by Harvard-educated William Monroe Trotter and George Forbes. Trotter purposefully opened his office in the same building that had once housed William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, and the journal's voice was as uncompromising as Garrison's had been. The paper deplored Booker T. Washington's acquiescence to the rules of a segregated society. The Guardian demanded an end to segregation, and believed the effort to achieve this aim should come without the help of white patrons.

Special Focus
This paper will delve into America's entrance into World War I and its consequences for African Americans. It should review the struggle which divided the African American community as to whether it should or should not support a war effort abroad "to make the world safe for democracy" when the U.S. government denied African Americans equality at home. It should also review the contribution of the African Americans who served and fought just as valiantly as soldiers of other races -- but did so in a segregated army.

The Crisis
W.E.B. Du Bois was the most prominent editor of the highly influential The Crisis. With fellow Harvard graduate Trotter, Du Bois had founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 which was designed to combat Washington's accommodationist stance to racial oppression. In 1905, Du Bois published his ground-breaking work The Souls of Black Folk. The Crisis was the newspaper of the newly-formed NAACP which - with the backing of many prominent white supporters like Mary W. Ovington - worked to win landmark legal cases to end segregation.

Special Focus
This journal will focus especially on the work of the NAACP and the legal cases it brought to court, as well as the protests it spearheaded during this time against lynching, and the movie The Birth of a Nation.

Chicago Defender
Robert Abbott first published the Chicago Defender in 1905. He was the son of former slaves from Georgia and graduated from Kent Law School in Chicago in 1899. By 1929 the Defender had a national circulation of 250,000 readers. The paper focused its wrath on racial injustices in the South, especially Jim Crow laws and lynching. It played a pivotal role in the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities, offering them in its pages information and advice about opportunities up North.

Special Focus
The Defender's role will be to report on lynching in the South, race riots, and Jim Crow laws, as well as to advise African Americans seeking to migrate North. Ida B. Wells Barnett was among the prominent journalists involved in the anti-lynching campaign.

Newspaper Assignments

Each newspaper should have articles in the following categories:

Special Focus articles on the topics assigned to each newspaper (see above)
Domestic achievements and failures of the Wilson administration.
International achievements and failures of the Wilson administration.
African American contributions in:
The Arts, including cinema, music, fine arts, and literature
Science, medicine and inventions
Advertisements (for new products of the time period).
An editorial written by the paper's founder which specifically assesses Wilson's administration in relationship to African Americans
Letters to the Editor

Newspaper Teams Ask newspaper teams to organize themselves into the following groups:

Editorial: This group will assign articles to every member of the newspaper (including themselves) to make sure that a variety of topics is covered and that articles do not overlap. In addition to assigning to every team member a written article, it should ask each member to design an advertisement for a product that would have been sold in 1920. One writer from this group will write an editorial expressing the paper's assessment of the Wilson Administration.
Copy Editors: This committee will review all first drafts, make corrections and send them back to authors for revision.
Layout: This group will design the newspaper's masthead. If possible, group members should try to look at an original or facsimile page of its journal either on-line or in a library. This team will design the final layout of all articles either by cutting, pasting and then photocopying the paper, or by the use of a desktop publishing system, such as Pagemaker.
Journalism Review
You may wish to spend time discussing how to write a newspaper article with proper headings for a dateline, by-line, and headline, in addition to the use of a lead sentence (who, what, when, where and why). You should also discuss the difference between an editorial (based on opinion) and a news article (based on fact). Discussing these basics in the context of some articles from today's newspapers would be helpful.

Additional Resources

Two helpful books for researching article topics are:

The Timetables of American History edited by Laurence Urdang, Simon & Schuster, 1998
Black Saga: The African American Experience, A Chronology by Charles M. Christian, Civitas press, 1999.

Useful Web sites include:

African American Odyssey from American Memory in the Library of Congress

The National Archives' Archival Information Locator

The companion Web site for the American Experience documentary on PBS, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, on the most charismatic African American leader of Wilson's era

Information from the Marcus Garvey Web site on the 1920 Convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and its "Declaration of Rights of the Negro People of the World"

The companion Web site for the PBS documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

The companion Web site for the PBS documentary series Jazz (for lessons on jazz in the English, music and math curriculum, as well as specific lessons on lynching and segregation)
Lesson on African Americans in World War I from the National Archives

Jazz Age Chicago, a Web site by Scott Newman, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Loyola University Chicago.

The city of Chicago's Chicago Landmarks entry on the Chicago Defender Building

The companion Web site for the PBS documentary series The American President, especially the section on Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson: The Last Confederate from the African Americans & Presidents Web site published by African American Male Research

An online exhibit by Professor Mel Sylvester of Long Island University on African Americans in Motion Pictures

The Ohio Historical Society's portrait and brief biography of William Monroe Trotter
Articles by Booker T. Washington and responses from his critics, published by Kalamu Magazine and the archives of Tuskegee University:

A biography of Trotter on the Web site of the William Monroe Trotter Institute of the University of Massachusetts Boston

A brief W.E.B. Du Bois biography and bibliography from the companion Web site for the PBS documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

Information on Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender from the companion Web site for the PBS documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

Activity 4: Circulating the News
Each newspaper team should photocopy its final paper for everyone in the class.

After students have read all newspapers, ask them to write a "Letter to the Editor" of each of the other two newspapers. A letter to the editor can express praise for a specific article, raise questions or express criticism of a news article or editorial. After all members of the class have written letters, post the newspapers and surround them with the letters.
Activity 5: Ranking Wilson's Presidency
By now students should be able to make an overall assessment of the Wilson years. The remaining question is: Where would the class put Wilson in the ranks of great presidents and why? Would they agree with historian John Milton Cooper that he ranks in the top five? How much should Wilson's failure to lead the country towards racial justice detract from his overall ranking? Should we pardon this failing because of his Southern upbringing and the tenor of the times, or hold him to higher standards?
Ask students to discuss this moral issue in terms of other U.S. presidents. For example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among other U.S. presidents, were slave owners. Andrew Jackson generally gets very high ratings even though his policy of Indian Removal is one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history. Lyndon Johnson left behind one of our greatest legacies in terms of racial justice, but his reputation floundered on Vietnam. What do these debates and dilemmas say about United States history?
End the discussion with a class vote on Wilson's rank in the presidential hall of fame.
Assessment Recommendations

Assess students' newspaper articles on the basis of their demonstrated research and writing skills.
Ask students to write an essay in which they assess the successes and failures of Wilson's presidency from an African American perspective.
Ask students to write an essay in which they either defend Wilson's position in the "top five" of American presidents, or demote him. Ask that students defend their positions with facts and good reasoning.
Ask students to write an essay in which they summarize the achievements of African Americans during the Wilson years

Extension/Adaptation Ideas
After studying the Wilson years, study the effect of World War I on the African American struggle for democracy at home during the 1920's.
Ask students to research how the Great Migration by African Americans from the South to the North changed the face of American life.
Invite two speakers to class who lived through the same presidency (i.e.: Eisenhower or Johnson). Ask students to prepare questions for the speakers about various aspects of life during that time period. In what ways do the speakers share memories and opinions? When and where do their assessments of the president(s) diverge, and what can account for their differing assessments?
Relevant National Standards

History Standards
Established by the National Center for History in the Schools
Era 6: 2B (Grades 5-12)
The student understands "scientific racism", race relations, and the struggle for equal rights.
Era 7: Standard 1 B (Grades 5-12)
The student understands Progressivism at the national level.
Era 7: Standard 2C (Grades 5-12)
The student understands the impact at home and abroad of the United States involvement in World War I.

Civics Standards Established by the Center for Civic Education

Standard II. B (Grades 9-12)
Students should be able to evaluate, take and defend positions on issues regarding diversity in American life.
Standard II. D 5 (Grades 9-12)
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about issues regarding the disparities between American ideals and realities.

About the Author Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Over the years, she has written articles about her work in the classroom for Social Education. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at

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