Document analysis: Black Leaders Speak

Here are five important documents written by free black Northerners in the decades before the Civil War. Together, they help capture the range of concerns captured in the antebellum black protest tradition. This exercise will introduce students to some of the central ideas African-American leaders set forth in their writings.

Divide the class into five groups, each of which will be assigned a document. If possible, prepare groups and assign readings before class. Students in each group work together to read through the document and address the five questions listed below. Once groups have had time to discuss their documents, reconvene the class. Each group may then present its document to the class. Time permitting, the class may then consider the larger questions for consideration listed below.

1. A Free Woman of Color Lectures on Prejudice and Morality, 1832
2. An African-American Bishop Recalls Conflicts over Styles of Worship, 1888
3. Address of the Colored National Convention to the People of the United States, 1853
4. A Black Nationalist Manifesto, 1854
5. A Call for Morality over Money, 1859

Document questions:
1. Who does the author's audience seem to be? For whom were the words of the document intended?
2. What does the author of the document seem to want? If several things, what seems to be the central thing? Make sure you highlight the parts of the document that suggest the author's central goal.
3. What argument does the author make to go about achieving the goal?
4. Do you think this argument would have worked to convince the author's intended audience? In what ways yes and in what ways no?
5. As a modern reader, what parts of the argument seem persuasive to you and which seem less so? Why?

Questions for consideration:
1. What, according to the documents, were the major problems confronting African Americans?
2. What were some of the ways African Americans wanted to change American society?
3. On what kinds of values did they base their appeals? In other words, how did they hope to change the minds of their audiences?
4. In what ways might their arguments still have power today? In what ways might their message fail to connect to people today? Remember that just as they spoke to different audiences in their own day, they would have to speak to a variety of audiences today.
5. Do these documents reveal any differences among African Americans? If so, about what was there tension? How might these tensions have led to differing ideas on how best to achieve equality?