Lesson Plan: Overview

Using Primary Sources to Discover Reconstruction

Grade Level: 5th
Reconstruction Legislators

Academic Standards

Social Studies Content Standard 5-1: The student will demonstrate an understanding of Reconstruction and its impact on racial relations in the United States.

  • Different students will touch on different indicators during their discussions.  This inquiry is a means to address the standards in a more meaningful way in future lessons and in their academic careers.

Language Arts Standard 5-2: The student will read and comprehend a variety of informational texts in print and non-print formats.

  • Students in grade five read informational expository/persuasive/argumentative) texts of the following types: essays, historical documents, informational trade books, textbooks, news and feature articles, magazine articles, advertisements, encyclopedia entries, reviews (e.g., book, movie, product), journals, and speeches. They also read directions, maps, time lines, graphs, tables, charts, schedules, recipes, and photos embedded in informational texts. In addition, they examine commercials, documentaries, and other forms of nonprint informational texts.

5-2.2 Analyze informational texts to draw conclusions and make inferences.

5-2.3 Analyze a given text to detect author bias by locating indicators such as unsupported opinions.

5-2.4 Create responses to informational texts through a variety of methods such as drawings, written works, and oral presentations.

Social Studies Literacy Elements

K. Use texts, photographs, and documents to observe and interpret social studies trends and relationships

L. Interpret time lines, maps, photographs, paintings, political cartoons, documents, letters, and other artifacts

O. Consider multiple perspectives of documents and stories. Locate, gather, and process information from a variety of primary and secondary resources

Essential Questions

1. What are primary resources? 

2. What kind of information can be gained from them in general?  About Reconstruction?

3. What should we consider about the source and why?

Historical Background Notes

The Reconstruction Era is a complicated time in American history.  Primary resource artifacts can help us understand the time in a more sophisticated way as long as we understand the potential biases.  My students need to gain an understanding of how we can learn about a time through primary resources, and the nuances that need to be considered. 

“A primary source is an item or a document that comes directly from the person, subject or time period that is being studied. It is a record of a topic as it is first described, without any interpretation or commentary” (Teaching American History). A new perspective can be gained by viewing documents of the time that secondary sources cannot provide.  The lack of analysis and commentary allows the viewer to make their own conclusions based on the evidence in the primary source.  It is crucial to me that my students are critical consumers who always question information and sources. If the only history they receive is watered down and secondary or tertiary, they will never make their own conclusions and will not be pushed to see beyond the “accepted.”

By viewing many primary resources during Reconstruction they will begin to paint their own pictures of what was, is, and could be. The students will view newspapers from their hometown of Chapin, to help them gain a new perspective of the time. They will also critically view both South Carolina Constitutions, maps, national newspapers, and other resources. Through these resources they will begin to see the importance of primary resources while gaining a better perspective of Civil War Reconstruction and the key players and groups involved.

South Carolina was a state in conflict and disarray at the end of the Civil War. To rejoin the Union the state had to accept the 13th Amendment and Confederates had to sign an Oath of Allegiance to gain full rights. At the same time, former slaves are trying to understand what freedom means and how to make a living. The Freedman’s Bureau was established to help create schools, provide medical care, help negotiate labor contracts, and provide necessary aid to the newly freed slaves (Shi and Tindall, 492). The Freedman’s Bureau fought an uphill battle of dissidence and violence with little power to do anything about it. Freedmen were trying to locate their families, marry, and establish schools and churches.

Freedmen eventually become heavily involved in politics in South Carolina. With the passing of the 15th Amendment black men could now vote, and did! Since slaves outnumbered white men in South Carolina, the state government quickly transformed. Blacks eventually took the majority in Congress and wrote a new South Carolina Constitution in 1868. The Constitution was revolutionary. It provided free education, including college, to all youth of the state regardless of race or color. The 1868 Constitution even established institutions for the deaf, blind, and the insane. The Constitution clearly articulated everyone’s right to be free and all men having the right to vote. (SC Constitution of 1868)

Republicans supported Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction and amnesty, and an even more vigilant group emerged within the Radical Republicans. “Radical Republicans demanded a sweeping transformation of southern society that would include making freed slaves fill-fledged citizens. The Radicals hoped to reconstruct southern society so as to dismantle the planter elite and the Democratic Party” (Shi and Tindall, 493). Some Republicans were deemed carpetbaggers and scalawags, and traders in the South.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson, a pro-union, Southern Democrat, was left to unite the country. However, Johnson quickly made enemies of the Republican controlled Congress. Congress then took over Reconstruction, wanting to see more rights for freedmen and wanting the Freedman’s Bureau extended, while, eventually, attempting to impeach President Johnson. Though Republicans and Radicals enjoyed their share of controversy, they did pave the way for much of the policies and actions of today. Republicans helped to create the first public school system, along with orphanages, asylums, and institutions for the disabled of all races (Shi and Tindall, 509). Much of the infrastructure of roads and bridges also began at this time.  However, some Republicans were corrupt and took advantage of this time of unrest. (Shi and Tindall, 509)

The Democrats were in direct opposition of the Radical Republicans and had a stronghold in the South. As the Democrats were voted out of Congress, they tried to find other outlets for their disdain.  Their chance came to light when Grant and, eventually, Hayes become President and eventually removed\ the Freedman’s Bureau, the military, and many of the protections of the law that kept freedmen safe and ensured their rights.  The Ku Klux Klan emerged in the South.  As a result, Democrats took Congress back over, and by 1895 they had written a new Constitution, the one that stands today.  This Constitution flew in the face of the 1868 Constitution as much as it could by the letter of the law.  More restrictions were placed on voting rights and education loopholes were created (Constitution of 1895).  This Constitution paved the way for the Black Codes and a new wave of oppression and discrimination.

All of these groups were in play during Reconstruction.  Some wanted the same things for different reasons, and some groups were in direct opposition.  A complicated mix of groups and motives helped make Reconstruction even more tumultuous.  The KKK, the founding terrorist group was created, while in contrast, the first public schools and institutions for the disabled were established.  Power, approaches, and motives shifted throughout Reconstruction.  It began with Lincoln’s conservative Republican views of tolerance and amnesty, transitioned to the Democrat Johnson, before ending up in the hands of the Radical Republicans.  The Radical Republicans, with the help of the Freedman’s Bureau, helped freed slaves while enacting revolutionary policies.  Of course, these policies were contradicted and fought, and eventually this groundbreaking time would come to an end.  “If Reconstruction did not provide social equality or substantial economic opportunities for African Americans, it did create the opportunity for future transformation” (Shi and Tindall, 519).

Through the viewing and analysis of Civil War Reconstruction primary resources, my students will begin to gain an understanding of the main ideas and people of Reconstruction.  My students will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the history by examining local newspapers, The South Carolina Constitutions, maps, drawing, photos, and others documents.  They will begin to think critically  about our state’s history and how it has shaped who we are today.


Primary Sources

Constitutional Convention (1868). Constitution of 1868. S 131081.  South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

Constitutional Convention (1895). Constitution of 1895. S 131086.  South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

Freedmen's Contract between C.K. Singleton and 32 Freedmen.  22 January 1867, Singleton family Papers, Manuscripts Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Jacob F. Strait Oath of Allegiance, 1865. Papers of the Gaston, Strait, Wylie and Baskin Families, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

The Carolina News (Chapin, South Carolina). 14 April 1897: page 4. Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

The Carolina News (Chapin, South Carolina). 7 July 1897: page 3. Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. 15 December 1866: page 797.  Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. 26 September 1874: page 37.  Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. 16 December 1876: page 253.  Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. 21 April 1877: page 120.  Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

“Murder of the Rev. B.F. Randolph.” Harper’s Weekly. 21 November 1868: page 740, column 1. Newspapers on Microfilm.  Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Secondary Sources

Boyd, Candy, Geneva Gay, Frederick Risinger, eds. Growth of a Nation. Pearson Education, 2006.

Shi, David, George Tindall. America: A Narrative History. W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.


Lesson Plans

Day 1 and 2:

1. A Venn Diagram will be on the SmartBoard for Primary vs. Secondary resources.

2.The class will brainstorm examples of each type and why we would want to use them.

3. We will then complete the Venn Diagram noting the similarities first in regards to historical sources.

4. Students will them travel in stations for the next 2 days viewing different examples of primary resources from South Carolina during reconstruction.  They will record what they glean on the information grid I copied for them.

Day 3 and 4:

1. I will then place the students in “expert” groups around one type of primary resource (photo, newspaper, map etc.). 

2. The group will then create a list of general things we could learn from this TYPE of resource, and another list of what they learned about Reconstruction from the resources.

3. Students will present on their expert source.

4. We will discuss any additions or deletions that need to be made about the type of resource.

5. We will create a class chart about what we now know about Reconstruction.

6. I will then introduce the concept of bias and leave them with this question.

Teacher Reflections

The Teaching American History in South Carolina experience has permanently altered the way I teach history.  The combination of the master scholar’s (Paul) instruction, the master teacher’s (Pam) instruction, the cultural institutions, and the myriad of resources that were provided for us has forever transformed the way that I teach and the way that I view history.

Before this experience I viewed history as rather cut and dry.  Paul, Pam, and our trips helped me to understand all of the multiple perspectives that are involved with history, and how there is really no one truth.  I found this concept exciting as I sought to find the untold stories and the viewpoints of history that have been long ignored.  It is now clear to me that primary resources are the best way to bring these multiple perspectives to light and help my students create their own picture of history, rather than the often biased and watered down version cited in their textbook. 

We began the year by figuring out what primary resources were and the kind of information that can be gleaned from primary resources.  To solidify this concept for the students and to build community, they presented themselves through primary resources.  The students presented a plethora of primary resources including birth certificates, preschool graduation diplomas, trophies, photographs, and newspaper articles.  Before presenting to the class, students shared their sources with another student and they tried to infer about one another. Pam helped me see how reading skills can naturally be integrated with the analysis of primary resources.  Why can’t students use trophies and pictures to infer and draw conclusions?  They absolutely can, but I never did this before.  With this knowledge of the use of primary resources, we moved on to using them to help us understand Civil War Reconstruction.

During the primary resource lessons the students viewed a multitude of resources and became experts on one type of resource.  It was quite remarkable as we explored Reconstruction in South Carolina together.  The students were shocked by the Black Codes, and surprised by the photograph we viewed of the black congress in SC during Reconstruction.  Students viewed both the 1868 and 1895 South Carolina Constitutions and compared the aims of both.  They started to see what different groups would have wanted and how they used the SC constitution to achieve these aims.  Some of the language and handwriting was difficult to navigate, and I did provide transcripts for excerpts. 

I saw the power in their thinking and conclusions that would not have happened with pure regurgitation.  The students were applying their reading skills to construct their own understanding of the time.  The textbook would not have provided this power and depth.

My students became angered by the treatment of African-Americans and could not understand how the revolutions in the 1868 Constitution could be so short lived.  Many students even expressed guilt, knowing that their ancestors were slave owners.  We had to discuss how we cannot be responsible for the mistakes of those before us.  It is our job to see the mistakes and injustices and make sure that they do not happen again.  The unit was not free of controversy, as some of the old southern views emerged.  As we studied our textbook, one student commented, “My dad said this book must be written by someone in New York City.” And I was quickly reminded that I am not a native here. However, I wanted to honor southern pride, and tried to find primary sources that supported all opinions and sides.

There are several improvements I would like to make next year when I teach this unit. This was my first year teaching history, and I felt a bit scattered and hap hazard.  I was so excited and I wanted to use everything, that maybe I did not utilize things as well as I could.  I may allow my students to follow their own independent inquires more.  I would also like to use technology as a better tool next year.  I planned for the students to create a Photostory, but the lab was unavailable due to mandated testing.  Paul gave me an amazing background in the period that has grown me tremendously, but it was still my first year, I know I’ll get better!  I would like to use more of Pam’s integration techniques and will try to push them to critically analyze further in the lessons and years to come.

I did start using primary resource analysis as part of their unit test. Though some struggled, I know that this type of analysis will do them well.  It helps them see that history is more than memorization, it is interpretation.

As we progress through the year, I will continue to utilize primary resources as a way to build meaning and interest.  I want to be more explicit with the use of these resources and I want to use them on a very regular basis.  Pam and Paul’s lessons have given me the confidence to consider myself and my students as historians.  We can look at documents like “real” historians and draw our own conclusions.  We do not need to always rely on others to do the thinking for us.  This has been quite exciting and liberating!

The Teaching American History experience has taught me the importance of primary resources and varied teaching techniques, but most importantly this experience has reignited my love and passion of history.  For so long I was killed and drilled and started to hate history.  The stories present on the History Channel were absent in the classroom.  History became a memorization game that I sometimes lost in school.  I am thrilled that TAHSC has helped me see a better way.  I can now ignite the love of history in my students! I am forever grateful!

Student Assessment

1. The information grid and expert group charts will count as a class participation grade.

a. I will monitor the students with the expectation that they participate and are 100% present.

2. I will record anecdotal notes about the students thinking, especially any misconceptions that they may have.

3. During morning meeting in the first two weeks of school, students will be asked to introduce themselves through the use of primary resources.  They will receive a grade for their understanding of primary resources, see primary resources sheet, by using at least 3 different types to help us learn about him/her. (photos, documents, passport, birth certificate, awards, artifacts, journals, baby book, newspaper clippings etc.)

4. At the end of the Reconstruction unit, students will take an exam that includes the analysis of primary resources. (This will occur in every S.S. unit.)

Examples of Students Work

Student Information Grid Sheet

Student Primary Resources Sheet

Student Reconstruction Exam


Danielle Hance
Lake Murray Elementary, Chapin, South Carolina