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Is this the Promised Land?
The Great Migration is one of the largest population shifts in the history of the United States. The Great Migration details the factors contributing to the migration of African Americans to the North, the networks and media used to influence them to move, as well as the impact the migration had on the people, the country, and the culture. In this lesson, students will explore the "broken promises" such as overcrowding, poverty, housing, and broken wage promises that African Americans encountered as a result of moving north during the period of 1916-1930. Students will then create journal entries detailing the life of African Americans during this period. The journal entries will reflect upon the point of view and frame of reference, and detail the positive and negative aspects of moving north.
Grade Levels:High school, grades 11-12
For use with:The Great Migration
Concentration Area:History: U.S. Government
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The standards for this lesson conform to those set by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel).
Students will understand

  • How Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption.
  • How the Progressive movement influenced different groups in American society (e.g., counter-Progressive programs of labor organizations compared to social democratic programs in industrial Europe, the response of mainstream Progressives to women's issues, the changing perception of Native American assimilation under Progressivism, the founding of the NAACP, how African-American women contributed to the movement, how the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provided alternatives, the success of the Progressive movement to groups outside the mainstream).
  • How racial and ethnic events influenced American society during the Progressive era (e.g., the movement to restrict immigration; how racial and ethnic conflicts contributed to delayed statehood for New Mexico and Arizona; the impact of new nativism; influences on African, Native, Asian, and Hispanic Americans).
  • How the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression.
  • The major social issues of 1920s America (e.g., the emergence of the "New Woman" and challenges to Victorian values, the purpose and goals of the "New Klan" , the causes and outcome of Prohibition, the ethnic composition of immigrants and fears these changes represented, the "Red Scare" , the Sacco and Vanzetti trial).
  • Influences on urban life in America during the 1920s (e.g., new downtown business areas, suburbs, transportation, architecture, the idea of the "civic center").
Time required
Two 50-minute class periods plus additional homework of reading the narrative and creating the journal entries
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  • Primary sources reflect the sensibilities and often the prejudices of the era in which they were created. Accordingly, some will contain offensive language, descriptions of graphic violence or sexual situations, or physical stereotypes. Read documents through (letters, journals, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) ex-slave narratives, for example) and examine political cartoons' captioning and depictions to determine if their use is consistent with your school district's guidelines, appropriate for meeting the educational goals of a unit of study, and suitable for the maturity level of your students.
  • To prepare for this lesson, identify 15-30 primary sources (enough for each student or pair of students) that pertain to slavery in the United States. Textbooks may contain some documents, particularly as illustrations; but you also may locate other documents in print, on CD-ROM, or in online collections. In addition, artifacts and documents from local historical societies or genealogy groups, cemeteries or monuments, and historic homes may contribute information specific to the community.
  • Ideally, students should work with photocopies, digital images, or facsimiles of documents rather than transcriptions. All documents need to be legible and clear so that students will be able to retrieve the information you want them to get from the document. Be sure to double-check that students can enlarge online "thumbnail" images without degrading them into illegible pixels.
    1. Ask students to write down their thoughts on the following questions:

      1. What factors would lead you to pack up everything and move hundreds of miles from your family and friends?
      2. How would you gather information to help you make your decision to move?
    2. After students have written down their answers, debrief with the class. Record the information in a two-column chart.
    3. After debriefing, explain to students that they will be reading about The Great Migration. Explain to students that this movement of people from the South to the North during the period of 1916-1930 represents one of the largest population shifts in the nation's history.
    Why I Would Move? How I Would Gather Information?


    1. Explain to students that they will be reading the narrative The Great Migration and that they will also be examining letters, newspaper advertisements, and artwork by Jacob Lawrence to gain information on this time period.

      1. Assign the narrative for reading at home. To debrief the narrative, give students Key Points From the Narrative Sheet (link to below) and have the groups detail key points for each topic.
    2. Provide students with the Analysis Tool (link to below) that will help them extract information from the primary sources and the artwork.
    3. Have students work in groups of two-three to examine the materials using the Analysis Tool and gather information from their journal assignments.

    Using information gained from the narrative and primary sources, have students create five journal entries covering a range of time that details the experiences of an African American making the decision to migrate to the North. Journal entries should contain the positive and negative factors of moving, factors motivating them to moves such as advertisements of high wages and the collapse of the South's economic system, experiences in the North and their thoughts on the decision they made to move, and how life might have been different if they hadn't moved north.

    Key Points From The Narrative Sheet

    Reasons for Leaving the South

    Motivations to Migrate

    The Journey North

    Networks and Media

    The New Industrial Landscape

    Life in the North

    The Red Summer

    The Quest for Political Power


    Is this the Promised Land?

    Analysis Tool

    1. What type of document is this? ______________________________
    2. Summarize what you read in the document or see in the artwork.
    3. Does it have a point of view? Is there any bias or prejudice to this source?
    4. How does this source explain the motivation for African Americans to migrate to the North?
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