Lesson Plan: Overview

John Gary Evans and the Politics of Race

Grade Level: 11th

John Gary Evans, as President of 1895 Constitutional Convention.

Unit Standards

Standard USHC 5: The student will demonstrate an understanding of major social, political, and economic developments that took place in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.
USHC-5.7 Compare the accomplishments and limitations of the progressive movement in effecting social and political reforms in America, including the roles of Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, W. E. B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington.

Historical Background Notes

The rights and status of African Americans in the social, political, and economic realms of American life were under attack during the 1890s.  Although the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments appeared to provide basic political and social freedom to all, African Americans had gradually been disenfranchised and marginalized by white politicians after the end of Reconstruction in 1877.   South Carolina would be one of the first Southern states to effectively block the African American vote. (Edgar 1998)

The integration of American society was a challenging proposition.  All of the optimism of the Reconstruction era had long dissipated by the 1890s.  Integrating the two races politically, economically, and socially had proven to be impossible by the end of the 19th century.  Racial violence was a reality.  Jim Crow laws, establishing racial segregation gradually appeared in many states in the 1890s.  South Carolina newspapers frequently reported lynching.  The debate and rhetoric of the time reflects two groups attempting to find an answer to the difficult puzzle of race relations.  A wide variety of institutions and voices would weigh in on this matter.  The decisions they reached had a tremendous impact on the next 70 years of United States social history.

Nationally, the Plessy v. Ferguson case defined the new status quo of American race relations.  A group of African Americans, disgusted by the growing restrictions on African-Americans in public places, put Plessy on a train with the intention of provoking an event that would lead to a legal case to assault the segregation of passengers on trains.  Their plan worked, and the case made it to the Supreme Court in 1896. The decision of the court led to the Separate but Equal doctrine that governed race in the United States from 1896 to the middle of the 1970s. 

In South Carolina, the political forces of Ben Tillman were successful in calling for a Constitutional Convention in 1895.  Reforming the constitution meant revising the qualifications for suffrage.  The new constitution created poll taxes and literacy requirements that would be used effectively to bar black South Carolinians from voting until the 1960s.

The consequences of the Constitution of 1895 and Plessy v. Ferguson were not exactly clear to 19th century Americans.  What was clear was the division about how these two racial groups would coexist politically, socially, and economically.  Some, like Booker T. Washington, would advocate accommodation.  At the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, Washington would deliver an important address with several meanings.  White southerners heard a call for subservience.  Blacks would maintain their position in the social hierarchy by taking menial positions in the national economy.  African-Americans heard a message of self-reliance.  They were responsible for their improvement as a group.  

Although Washington was the national leader of the African American community, not all were in his corner.  W.E.B. DuBois would challenge Washington’s ideas in his writings and public appearances.  He would promote the leadership of the Talented Tenth as the route for political and social success for African Americans.

Certainly, as South Carolina’s Governor from 1895 to 1897, John Gary Evans served during a unique series of events.  He began his term prior to the Atlanta Exposition and stepped down after the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision.   He was governor during the 1895 Constitution Convention and would oversee its implementation.  Memos and letters sent during his administration reflect these events and the uncertainties of the time.


Primary Sources
Evans, John Gary, to E.H. Coit, 6 December 1895. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.
Gunton, U.X., to R. McLendon, 5 March 1896. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.
Gunton, U.X., to O.C. Jordan, 5 March 1896. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.
Secondary Sources
Edgar, Walter B. South Carolina: A History. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Prompt Sheet


Students become historians investigating and interpreting primary sources.  Not only do students learn about Governor Evans and late 19th century racial beliefs but also gain an understanding of historical research methods.  This lesson takes one class period.
1. Discuss the student perceptions of racial beliefs and understandings in the late 19th century.  (This can be done formally or informally.)  Talk about Reconstruction amendments and the gradual appearance of Jim Crow laws.
2. Divide students into groups of three.  Hand out one letter to each member of the group.  Students will read their letter independently and interpret the source based on the prompt.  (7-10 minutes)
3. Students meet in their groups.  Each student will explain their source and how they interpreted the arguments.  Student groups will develop a description of John Gary Evans’ beliefs about race. Student groups will answer the second prompt.(12-15 minutes)
4. Discuss each letter in a whole class discussion.  Discuss the interpretation groups reached on Governor Evans.

Teacher Reflections

The lesson attempts to take a variety of statements from the official correspondence of John Gary Evans, South Carolina’s Governor from 1895 to 1897, and illuminate the complexity of thought on race during this era.  

What worked?

The challenge of this lesson is to take three different arguments that are not clearly related and construct a position on Governor Evans’ attitude about the South Carolina African-American Community.  The ability of students to infer or interpret Governor Evans’ position from one letter was usually done well.  Certainly, as we see in the first student sample, her understanding of Evans’ direction to R. McLendon “He seems to be against the KKK” is an acceptable interpretation of the source.  In student sample 2, the student argues that the letter to the A.M.E. ministers is really political in its purpose.  He states “This letter is most likely just a letter to get votes and Evans’ tone sounds fake.”

What did not work?

Although the discussion that followed did allow for some consideration of Evans’ motive in sending these letters, the written part of the activity still led to some superficial responses.  This activity was done in an honors level classroom.  Their ability to grasp the basic idea of the memo or letter should have been predictable.  Next time, the prompt will direct them to question why the memo or letter was written in addition to paraphrasing the message.

The more complex task was to take three different positions and develop a more comprehensive explanation of Evans’ position.  As I moved around the room, the students struggled to find common themes between the letters.  Certainly, they saw some contradictions on the surface.  For example, some thought Evans had positive reactions toward the black community in the Coit and McLendon letters, but a rather negative tone in the Jordan letter.

Eventually, I was able to discuss themes with each group and they were able to tease some general ideas out of the sources.  The most frequent statement was that Evans was acting for political interests.  The student has this to say in student sample 3 “Governor Evans is pretending to care.  He is just going through the motions, barely doing enough to be politically correct.  In the letter to the sheriff, Gov. Evans just asks that some thing is done to the Klu Klux, but doesn’t offer any help or advice.”  The student in sample 1 hits a very prevalent concern in two of the letters, violence.  She says “concerned about racial violence.”

The other concern I have looking at the entire set of responses is the lack of evidence from the sources to support their generalizations.  I consider this to be a common problem amongst students.  At this stage in their skills development, it is important to make them go through the steps of showing the link between their arguments and the evidence.  

How can lessons be improved?

This is the first assignment these students have faced that call upon them to incorporate several sources to render an interpretation.  Certainly, more experience with this type of exercise would help to a certain extent.  I am more inclined to find two or three additional sources to muddy the interpretive waters even more. I will add additional prompts in the future.  As I stated earlier, I would like students to consider motive for sending the letter.  Another prompt will ask students to explain which source has the greater veracity.  Answering these questions before moving into their small groups may help in developing a more complex description of Evans.

Student Assessment

1. Evaluate student responses to the prompt. Emphasis should be placed on supporting evidence for their arguments.

2. Evaluate students in their small group and whole group discussions about the evidence.


Examples of Students Work

Completed Prompt Sheet


Marc Turner
Blythewood High School , South Carolina