Information Literacy and Historical Primary Sources: Addressing Difficult Topics

In a recent webinar for teachers, we offered strategies to address difficult topics by applying information literacy approaches to historical primary sources. Situating items in historical context, asking who was behind the information, analyzing claims and evidence, and comparing what other sources say about the topic helps learners build a richer understanding of the complexity of the past.

At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina, 1942

We opened the webinar with the 1942  image At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina to introduce the topic of  Jim Crow and to practice primary source analysis skills. We asked questions selected from the Teachers Guide: Analyzing Photographs to guide the analysis. Participants noticed some visible texts: “Colored Waiting Room” and “Hitler’s Love Life Revealed.” They described the clothing and posture of the people in the photograph, noting the man’s tie, suspenders, and hat. They reflected that his clothing looked a bit dressed up. They wondered what he might be thinking as he stood under the sign. Some wondered when it was taken and why. Others wondered what other public spaces had separate waiting rooms.

Next, we introduced newspaper articles from early in the 20th century to gain understanding of context, antecedent events, and multiple perspectives. We invited participants to spend a few minutes carefully reading a 1915 letter to the editor “Wants ‘Jim Crow’ Law All Over…” and then discussed the writer’s claims and evidence offered to support that claim. Many participants noted the argument for separate but equal accommodations. We next scanned headlines and opening paragraphs of a selection of other articles from the page for context about what was happening in the country and the world at the time. Participants noted concerns about events drawing the U.S. into the war as well as citizenship questions.

Wants ‘Jim Crow’ Law All Over the United States. The Washington Times, February 22, 1915.

Select Headlines, The Washington times. [volume], February 22, 1915

Ludicrous Effect of “Jim Crow” Car Law. Richmond planet. [volume], September 15, 1900

An article from 1900 offered another perspective on an unexpected result from Jim Crow laws: a sheriff traveling with white and African American prisoners could not ride the train because he could not supervise the prisoners in two cars. The article also offered an opportunity to consider the importance of exploring who is behind information. After identifying the claim and evidence presented in the article – skills practiced with the previous article – participants scanned the page for clues about the likely audience of the newspaper. They noted several pictures of African American men and speculated that one main audience for the paper was African American readers. Next, they turned to the page with information “About Richmond planet. [volume] (Richmond, Va.) 1883-1938,” which indicated that the paper was founded by “13 former Richmond slaves, [and] initially edited by Edmund Archer Randolph, the first African American graduate of Yale Law School.”

We concluded by pointing participants to the Jim Crow and Segregation primary source set, from which all of these items were selected, with the suggestion that students might further research the history of Jim Crow laws and practices in the set or in the collections of the Library of Congress. Let us know what your students discover!

 

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