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Article from Washington Times
South Unable to Put Stop to Negro Exodus. Washington Star, Octobeer 23, 1916

Primary Sources and Agency

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This post is by Colleen Smith of the Library of Congress.

Students may recognize that an event is historical or consequential, but it might be harder for them to think about how people living at the time of the event understood the issue, made decisions about it, and took action. Primary source sets from the Library of Congress give teachers ready-to-use sources that are uniquely situated to do the work of showing what life was like at a particular time. The newest primary source set, The Great Migration, shows rich examples of human agency.

Historic newspapers convey a sense of how people were experiencing events during the Great Migration and what choices they made based on their experiences. Three articles in the set, one from The Washington Times and two from the front page of The Denver Star, give insight about push and pull factors early in the Great Migration and can be used in combination with each other to explore human agency and the Great Migration.

Articles from Denver Star
Denver Star, February 3, 1917

Depending on time constraints and student readiness, you might:

  • Ask students to read all three articles;
  • Assign a third of the class to read each article;
  • Jigsaw the activity in small groups.

Remind students that language they will encounter in the historical newspapers reflects societal norms of the time. For example, “Negro” is used when writing about Black Americans. Students may have reflections and questions about the use of language and how it has changed over time.

  • In their first reading, students should note observations about the words, phrases, and ideas the author uses that relate to Black Americans leaving the South. Consider the point of view of each publication. Remind students to factor in who is writing the article, what type of article it is (i.e., front page article, editorial), who is the publisher, and the motivations they might be bringing. Each publication has an “About” feature, which gives the reader important context about the newspaper.
  • During a second and closer reading of the article, direct students to reflect on why, according to the article, Black Americans are leaving the South but with attention to human agency. How are people experiencing events at the time? What choices do they need to make?
  • Next, students can craft questions they still have or new questions that surfaced. If students are reading all three articles, they would move on to their next source and repeat the process.

Allow time to facilitate a discussion about what we can learn when these sources “talk” to each other. Do the sources all agree about the experiences and choices? What articles support one another? Which ones contradict? Remind students to consider the writer’s bias, purpose, and point of view.

The more students engage in this type of questioning, they can see themselves as people with agency, living in a particular time and place. That matters because it helps students recognize that the questions and issues of their time are not events that are happening to them, but situations they can engage in.

How do you use primary sources to teach agency? What opportunities and challenges have you experienced in shifting away from history as inevitable events to history as a reflection of human choices? Tell us in the comments!

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