This post is courtesy of Katherine A. Perrotta, Part-Time Assistant Professor of History, Kennesaw State University, as an extension of an earlier article, Constructing a Narrative with Students about Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks from Her Notes. An earlier post laid the groundwork for these teaching ideas.
Rosa Parks endures as an iconic historical figure in social studies textbooks, trade books, and literature. Comparing the narratives in those secondary sources to primary sources from the Rosa Parks Papers can foster student inquiry to develop a more complex understanding of her role in the Civil Rights Movement as a life-long activist.
The process of historical inquiry involves answering questions and asking new ones based on evidence that is available to historians from sources. Facilitate student discussions about how historians determine what information is included in historical narratives by asking:
- What kind of sources do historians use to learn about the past?
- Where can historians find these sources?
- What kind of information can these sources contain that tell historians about the past?
- What kind of questions do you think historians can ask about the past from analyzing these sources?
Students can deepen their understanding of the toll racial oppression might have had on Parks’ personal and professional life by examining her recollections and documents she kept after her arrest. Parks reflected on living in the Jim Crow south:
There is just so much hurt, disappointment, and oppression one can take…Time begins the healing process of wounds cut deeply by oppression… Let us look at Jim Crow for the criminal he is and what he had done to one life multiplied millions of times over.
The collection houses a poll tax receipt in which Parks paid $1.50 in Montgomery County. This document highlights how Parks and other African Americans continued to experience racial discrimination. If time allows, facilitate discussion and additional research with students on why poll taxes were initiated, and how issues of voter disenfranchisement connected to Parks’ activism.
To help students synthesize their ideas, pose the following questions as an individual reflection or small group discussion:
- What major similarities and differences did you observe about the depictions of Rosa Parks in your secondary sources and the primary sources from the collection?
- Why do you think there was information that you found in Rosa Parks’ documents that are not included in other items you read about the Civil Rights Movement?
- What other questions do you have about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement from this investigation? What other sources do you think you would need to find the answers to these questions?
Students might write an essay, citing examples from primary and secondary source evidence, to evaluate how documents from the collection support or refute popular narrative depictions of Parks.
There are many insights to be found in a close study of the Rosa Park Papers. Please share your students’ discoveries with us in the comments!