Photography as a Window into Historic Protests

This post is by Wendy Harris, a teacher at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The history of protest in the United States is a hallmark of its democracy. One engaging story of protest is that of the Expeditionary Bonus Forces, sometimes called the Bonus Army. Taking a closer look at some Library of Congress primary sources helps complicate the mainstream narrative of this protest.

Indian bonus veteran. Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1930

After World War I, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act (Bonus Act), set to pay out to the veterans on their birthdays in 1945. A group of these veterans, called the Expeditionary Bonus Forces, marched on Washington, DC in 1932, calling for an early payout.

This image by Theodor Horydczak, himself a WWI veteran, was most likely taken at this gathering. Use a variation of the Zoom In inquiry strategy, developed by Metropolitan State University as part of the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources Partnership Program, to analyze the image. Divide the image into four vertical segments (one for each person seated in the image). First cover up the left 3/4 of the image, showing only the person on the right. Ask students to analyze this part of the image, using the Observe, Reflect, Question framework as a guide. Gradually reveal one vertical segment at a time, expanding the part visible from right to left, and ask students to revise their reflections and questions based on this new information.

Deepen discussion by asking:

  • How can clothing choices enhance a person’s message?
  • What causes would inspire you to participate in a protest?
  • Who might the intended audience for this photo be?
  • Why might Horydczak have decided to document this scene?

One way to encourage students to consider multiple perspectives is to compare two different sources about the same topic. Using this broadside, lead students in analyzing the message.

Ask:

  • What evidence is there about who created this broadside? What was their purpose?
  • Which groups were included and who was excluded?
  • How does the information in this source complement or complicate your understanding of the photo?
  • What questions do you now have about the Bonus Army?

Please respond in the comments below: How do you engage students in a discussion of civic action and protest? How do you enrich or complicate the narrative of historical protests and protesters?

One Comment

  1. Francisco Macias
    October 15, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    Great post. As the aim of this space is to teach with primary sources, I’m providing the link to the text of the World War Adjusted Compensation Act.

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