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Expanding Historical Narratives about Rosa Parks Using Primary Sources

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This post is by Jen Reidel, the 2019-2020 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Humans naturally interpret the world through stories. Narratives have the power to challenge, inspire, and motivate us to action. Primary sources are key components for sharing stories about our history and our priorities, and often reveal clues into our future. Artifacts offer students the unique ability to gain personal insights into the lives of ordinary individuals who took extraordinary action and find connections between students’ contemporary experiences and the past.

Many traditional historical narratives characterize historical figures as larger than life individuals who never doubted, struggled, or failed in their endeavors. Rosa Parks is often presented as the tired seamstress who one day decided to rise up against Jim Crow. Yet, this narrative is limiting and denies her agency as a complex person whose life experiences and activism prior to and after the Montgomery bus boycott define her as well. During a recent activity analyzing manuscripts from the Rosa Parks Papers Collection, one student remarked, “In school you learn a little about the bus boycott, but when you get exposed to these primary sources, it helps to see her [Rosa Parks] as human.”

Rosa Parks Autobiography-Early Childhood

Page two from Rosa Parks’ Autobiography

To expand the narrative of Rosa Parks for students, consider showing them a few pages from the Rosa Parks Papers collection. Before doing so, brainstorm with students what they know about Rosa Parks and the world she lived in. Selections from the Jim Crow and Segregation Primary Source Set can supply students with a variety of primary sources to contextualize Parks’ world. Then provide students with the document where she describes Early Childhood Incidents and experiences. Using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool, guide students in sharing what they observe about the document. They might identify information regarding her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather in her written reflection. Encourage students to reflect how family members seemingly influenced Parks as a child. Prompt students to find evidence from the recollection which reveals what life might have been like for Parks and her family in segregated America.

Continue the same process with the second page of Early Childhood Incidents and experiences. After analyzing pages one and two of her Early Childhood Incident and experiences, ask students to compare their initial brainstormed list about Rosa Parks to what they learned from the documents. Offer the sentence stems of “I think these primary sources reveal ____________ about Rosa Parks because ___________” or “These documents make me wonder ________________ because ______________” to help students express their learning.

Teachers could use student comments as a springboard into a larger discussion about how Rosa Parks’ early experiences may have shaped her actions relating to the Montgomery bus boycott. What additional questions for research do students have?

The Rosa Parks Papers digitized collection features more than 2,500 items relating to her life. Here are some additional teaching ideas related to this collection from a previous blog post. Which items inspire you and your students to expand understanding of Rosa Parks’ legacy? Let us know how you used activities highlighted in the blog or any variation with your students.



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