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Image showing the change in population of Blacks from 1940-1960
Negro Population Change 1940-1960 from the National Atlas of the United States

What Atlases Can Reveal about the Great Migration

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

As a teacher, I loved how seemingly mundane data could take on new meaning and significance for students when represented graphically. As a new employee with the Library of Congress, I love that we make such sources accessible to teachers and students. One of my favorite (so far) tasks as a member of this team has been to review potential sources for the newest primary source set on the Great Migration.

Two sources in particular pulled me in for a close read: “Distribution of the Colored Population: 1890” from The Statistical Atlas of the United States, based on results of the eleventh census and “Negro Population Change: 1940 to 1960″ from the National Atlas of the United States of America from 1970.

Map showing where blacks were located in the 1890's
Distribution of the Colored Population , 1890 from 11th Statistical Abstract of the United States

When I dug further into each map and respective atlas, I found inspiration for how the atlas, as a unique source type, could be used across subject areas to inspire new ways of thinking and teaching about the Great Migration.

  • Social Studies: Social studies teachers could use the atlas to both highlight the role of a census and to frame an investigation into the Great Migration. Census data can help us understand what life was like for different groups of people at a particular point in time. Both the 1890 and 1970 atlases apply data collected in those censuses to graphical represent movement of populations over time. Students can observe the data collected, reflect on trends, and construct questions about what push/pull factors were possibly at play in an individual’s decision to move. Then, students could examine the Great Migration source set. The photographs, oral histories, newspaper articles, and film give students additional perspectives to inform their thinking about the lived experiences of the Great Migration.
  • English Language Arts: Both atlases offer an opportunity for students to give attention to language and how it is used to describe conditions and people at different moments in time. When looking at either atlas with an ELA lens, students might conduct a close read of language used in the census and how the language of a time/place can tell a reader about larger social practices. Students could then engage in a facilitated critique of how that language would be seen today. As an extension, students might conduct research to consider what brought about the changes in language and the extent to which that coincides with different eras in the country’s history.
  • Math: While the topic of the Great Migration doesn’t appear in standard math curriculum, a teacher could use either atlas to consider real world application of data. Examining these sources through a math lens could also show that interpreting data isn’t value-neutral. Students might see how data is presented in the two different census reports and reflect on what that might reveal about societal norms at each time. This can prompt a worthy discussion of the census today. What data is collected? Who interprets it and what is their methodology? How does the data inform government policies, goods, and services?

What other source types support teaching across subject areas? Tell us how you and your colleagues collaborate to bring disciplinary tools and thinking to analyzing primary sources.

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