The Library of Virginia and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Celebrate Black History Month

Classroom Activities

Below is a list of classroom activities related to the Library’s 2008 Notable African Americans in Virginia honorees. Each activity meets the requirements of a variety of the commonwealth’s Standards of Learning (SOL).

Please note the links at the top of this page that will take you to biographical information on each honoree, as well as to related primary resources, such as newspaper clippings, speech transcriptions, and images, for use in the classroom. You can easily return to this page at any time using the Activities link found at the top of each honoree’s page.

Check your knowledge of the 2008 Notable African Americans in Virginia History honorees prior to exploring exploring the site with this Anticipation Guide. (pdf)

The Origins and Significance of Black History Month
(Social Science K.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 2.12)

Share the stories of the 2008 Notable African Americans with your students to help them connect with the people and events of the past. Explain that we recognize African American History Month to honor important African American figures.

Then and Now: Compare and Contrast
(Social Science K.2, 2.3, and 2.12)

Talk about how these people’s lives were different from the lives of your students.

  • Blind Billy entertained people with live performances on street corners late into the evenings. Today many people are entertained by prerecorded events on television, radio, and the Internet.
  • Fields Cook wrote a narrative of his life at a time when most African Americans were illiterate. Today everyone is given the opportunity to learn to read and write.
  • John Wesley Cromwell experienced living with Jim Crow laws that mandated "separate but equal" status for African Americans. Separate was almost never equal. Today everyone can drink from the same water fountains and attend the same schools.
  • Janie Porter Barrett witnessed girls with "wayward" behavior being sent to jail with no rehabilitation. Today there are numerous agencies that provide homes and help for juveniles who find themselves in trouble.
  • Edna Meade Colson pursued her graduate education outside Virginia because there were no programs in the state available to African Americans. Today graduate education is available to students of all races.
  • Percy Corbin and Aline Black both fought for equal pay for African American teachers. Today teachers of different races receive equal salaries based on their qualifications and job experience.
  • "Snowball" Crump was a self-taught dancer who performed for audiences across the United States and around the world. Today most professional dancers take classes for many years in order to achieve the success that he did.

Map Activity
(Social Science K.3, K.4, 1.4, 2.4, 3.6, VS.1, and VS.2)

Look at a Virginia map and find the locations associated with the 2008 Notable African Americans. Where do these people fit into the five geographic regions of Virginia? Are they near the coast? Are they far from the capital? Do you see mountains or rivers?

Giving Back: Reflections on Community Involvement
(Social Science K.8, 1.10, 1.12, 2.10, and 2.12)

Talk about how people can give back to their communities. Have your students develop a class project by which they can give something back to the community.

  • Blind Billy and "Snowball" Crump were both able to entertain a variety of communities through their talents of song and dance.
  • Fields Cook served as a minister, helping his congregation as well as working on behalf of the Republican Party and recently freed slaves in Virginia.
  • Aline Black, Edna Meade Colson, and John Wesley Cromwell notable educators who taught important values to Virginia’s youth. Percy Corbin, a civil rights advocate and doctor, helped his neighbors with health and equality issues.
  • Janie Porter Barrett assisted troubled youth by giving them a home and teaching them vocational skills.

Timeline Activity
(Social Science 1.1)

Draw a timeline and, as a class, put the honorees in order based on when they were born.

African Americans in Antebellum Virginia: Blind Billy, John Wesley Cromwell, and Fields Cook

Blind Billy, John Wesley Cromwell, and Fields Cook were all born enslaved and grew up prior to the Civil War. All three lived through significant transitional periods in U.S. history. What struggles did each of them face? What did they have to overcome that men like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who were born white and free did not? How did these men make their voices heard? Have students study these three men and write a song, a newspaper article, or a sermon that describes African American life early in the 19th century.

Fields Cook and Free Black Entrepreneurs in Virginia
[CE.1, CE.10, USI.8 (d), and VUS.6 (c)]

After being freed, Fields Cook made a successful living for himself and his family working as a leecher and a barber. Medical practices during the 19th century in America and England recommended blood-letting to cure illness. Leeches were applied to the skin to draw blood from the patient. Barbers, who were already experts with the use of razors, were also sought out to make precise cuts to draw blood. Barbering and leeching were important and prestigious professional careers for a select few free African American men in Richmond and throughout the South. One British commentator noted that "[t]he trade of barber is almost the birthright of the free Negro or colored man in the United States." Have students conduct research on free black barbers in Richmond and the South. See Douglas W. Bristol Jr., "Regional Identity, Black Barbers and the African American Tradition of Entrepreneurialism," in Southern Quarterly (2006): 74–96 (available online) for an overview of African American barbering in the Antebellum South. See also Loren Schweninger, "The Roots of Enterprise: Black-Owned Businesses in Virginia, 1830–1880," in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (October 1992), 515–542. For comparison, introduce students to the life and history of William Johnson, of Natchez, Mississippi.

Emancipation and Reconstruction in Virginia
(VS.8, USI.10, USII.3, and VUS.7)

Have students describe the effects of Reconstruction on life in Virginia. How did Reconstruction affect the 2008 Notable African Americans such as Fields Cook, John Wesley Cromwell, and Janie Porter Barrett? What did the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments mean for them? Did their lives change as a result of these written statements? John Wesley Cromwell lived in Pennsylvania and Maryland during Reconstruction, while Janie Porter Barrett lived in Georgia, and Fields Cook lived in Virginia. How were their experiences perhaps both different and similar? based on where each of them lived? How did segregation and "Jim Crow" laws affect them? What did Janie Porter Barrett, Fields Cook, and John Wesley Cromwell decide to do as a result of the segregated society in which they lived? Have students refer to the biographies of these Notable African Americans for clues.

Examining Brown v. Board of Education
(VS.9 and VUS.13)

In its decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring separate public schools for students of different races denied equal educational opportunities and therefore violated the 14th Amendment. Aline Black was a science teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk in 1954, a school that was originally for African Americans students only. How did the 1954 decision affect Aline Black and her students? Keep in mind that in 1939 she had lost her teaching contract with Norfolk schools in retaliation for suing the school system over salary issues. In 1941 she was reinstated.

Questions for Discussion and Research:

  • Have students research 1954 newspaper articles. How did the community feel about the 1954 decision?
  • Edna Meade Colson was a retired educator at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. If the 1954 decision had been in effect during her teaching career, how would her life have been different? How would it have been the same?
  • On February 24, 1956, Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. and other Virginia politicians and leaders united in order to prevent public school desegregation. How did this Massive Resistance affect the progress of desegregation in Virginia? For more information and resources, visit the Library of Virginia’s online exhibition Brown v. Board of Education: Virginia Responds.

Debating Education: John Wesley Cromwell and Booker T. Washington
[USII.3 (c), and VUS.8 (c)]

Have students discuss the meaning and importance of education. Have students read excerpts from John Wesley Cromwell’s Address on the Difficulties of the Colored Youth in Obtaining an Education in the Virginias (1875).

Discussion Questions:

  • According to Cromwell, what is education?
  • Look at the statistics for 19th-century African American education. What are some of the constraints faced by African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South?
  • What are the six difficulties of educating our youth? Which are the most important, according to the author?
  • Cromwell suggests that future civilizations of America should embrace all the excellences and defects of what?
  • Imagine you lived in post-Reconstruction Virginia. Write a letter to John Wesley Cromwell stating how you would solve the difficulties he mentions. Be as specific as possible.

John Wesley Cromwell initially supported Booker T. Washington’s vision of African American education. Cromwell’s support of Washington decreased, however, as Cromwell came to believe that political solutions for racial problems should have priority over education and material success alone. Have students read Booker T. Washington’s 1895 "Atlanta Compromise" speech in order to compare and contrast Washington’s views with those of Cromwell. A full-text version of the speech is available here.

Discussion Questions:

  • What was Booker T. Washington’s vision of education? What did Washington glorify? What did Washington believe African Americans should cultivate? How are Washington’s views similar to Cromwell’s? How are they different?
  • Cromwell discussed his views on immigrant populations here in America. What was Washington’s view of immigrant populations?
  • In his 1895 speech, Washington stated that "[i]n all things that are purely social we can be as the separate fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." What did Washington mean by this statement? Do you think Cromwell would agree or disagree? Why or why not?
  • According to Washington, which is more important, earning a dollar in a factory or spending a dollar in an opera house? What do you think Cromwell would think of this statement?
  • Washington had his critics and supporters. One African American thinker, W. E. B. Du Bois, did not support many of the views in the speech. Imagine you are Cromwell and you have just heard "The Atlanta Compromise" speech by Booker T. Washington. Would you agree or disagree with Du Bois? Have students write a speech about Washington’s views as Cromwell might have written it. Students should support their views by referring to the Address on the Difficulties of the Colored Youth in Obtaining an Education in the Virginias (1875). After the speeches are written, have students present speeches orally.

The Fight for Equality: Aline Black and Percy Corbin
[3.11, USII.7(d), USII.8(a), VUS.8(c), VUS.13, GOVT.3 (b), GOVT.11 (e), and CE.3 (b)]

One basic principal that forms the foundation of a republican government is equality under the law. Aline Black and Percy Corbin both challenged the government in regard to equal treatment. Have students read the articles from the Afro-American and Richmond Planet (November 5, 1938) and the Roanoke Times (May 3, 1949).

Discussion Questions:

  • What were Aline Black’s qualifications?
  • After ten years of service to Norfolk schools, what was her annual salary?
  • What was the average annual salary for white high school teachers who taught the same subject? Did she receive equality under the law? The differences in salary were based solely on what grounds?
  • Look at the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. What amendment was being violated and why?
  • What were the possible consequences of her actions for filing this petition? Knowing the possible consequences, what would you have done if you were Aline Black? Would you have kept quiet, or would you have stated your case?
  • Have students research the actual outcome of the case and what happened to Aline Black. How was Thurgood Marshall involved? How did Melvin O. Alston help the case?

Percy Corbin enlisted the help of the Pulaski school principal and representatives of the NAACP to petition the school board for a new building (after the Calfee Training School had burned in 1938) and for equal pay for African American teachers. Have students read the Roanoke Times article entitled "Pulaski School Action Dismissed by Barksdale" (May 3, 1949).

Discussion Questions:

  • What was Judge Barksdale’s decision? Describe the reasoning behind his decision.
  • How many white schools were accredited as compared to black schools?
  • How were the white schools described?
  • What was found to be inconsequential and not discriminatory?
  • What did Barksdale say would be a disservice to Negro education?
  • What was the student-teacher ratio at the Christiansburg Industrial Institute compared to the student-teacher ratio at the largest white high school? Why was this significant? What other statistical comparison was made between the schools?
  • According to the paper, which were more expensive per capita—white schools or black schools? What were the possible reasons?
  • What were the complaints made by the plaintiffs?
  • DOCUMENT ANALYSIS: Have each student conduct a word study on a copy of the article. Have students highlight words with a negative connotation in yellow; have students highlight words with a positive connotation in another color. How many of the negative and positive words are associated with the black community? How many of the negative and positive words are associated with the white community? After the word study is complete have students discuss the following: Who was the audience for this article? Why was this article written? What kind of details did the author present and what information was left out that might have helped the reader understand the issues? Why was the information left out? Is the author’s interpretation subjective or objective? What does the vocabulary choice say about the author’s intent in writing this article? What role did the writer play in the community and how might that have affected what he or she wrote? Have students make a judgment on the validity of the article. Is the article a reliable or unreliable source of information?

Now have students compare and contrast the experiences of Black and Corbin. How are they alike? How are they different? How did each contribute to the civil rights movement in Virginia and the equal treatment of all citizens? How did they lay the groundwork for future citizens of Virginia? How are our lives different today as a result of the work they began?

Fighting for Equality: Comparison Over Time
[VS.8 (a, b), VS.9 (b, c), USI.10, USII.3 (c), USII.7 (d), USII.8 (a)]

COMPARISON OVER TIME: Jim Crow, or racial segregation, limited educational opportunities for African Americans during the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries and was the letter of American law between Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 to the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. This is vividly illustrated in the challenges posed by several of the Notable African American honorees. John Wesley Cromwell, Percy Corbin, and Aline Black challenged unequal opportunities in the world of education. Have students read the biographies and backgrounds, and the primary documents about them. What are the commonalities of their struggles? What themes unite their efforts? More than sixty years passed between Cromwell’s speech on the challenges facing African American students and the legal battles waged by Black and Corbin. What does that say about the intransigence of Jim Crow policies in Virginia and the United States?

A Dancing Star from Virginia: The Career of Pleasants "Snowball" Crump

Have students discuss what defines career success. The discussion may include elements such as talents, interests, aspirations, skills, education, and financial rewards, as well as attitudes and behaviors. From this discussion have students list the top ten qualities that they believe will make a person successful. Have students rate these qualities, one being the most important and ten being the least important. Have students read about the career of "Snowball" Crump in the Afro-American and Richmond Planet, August 20, 1938, and then have them make a new list of the top ten qualities a person needs to have for career success. How have their lists changed? How have their lists stayed the same? What qualities did "Snowball" have that helped him in his career? What in his early life might have affected his career? How did he overcome these challenges?

Building Skills and Careers

For further study have students investigate the careers of each the 2008 Notable African Americans. How did each achieve career success? What qualities are common in all of them? Have students develop a plan to achieve career success. What is the most important quality they will need in order to be successful? Have students organize a career day and invite people from different occupations to come and speak at their school. Have students find representatives of unique occupations such as that of "Snowball" Crump. How has career success changed and how has it stayed the same with the occupations of today compared to the occupations of the 2008 Notable African Americans?

In the Name of Uplift: Janie Porter Barrett and the Progressive Impulse
[VUS.8 (d), USII.3 (e), USII.5, WHII.10, and CE.3 (e)]

Janie Porter Barrett was concerned with social welfare and worked to improve the community. Like Jane Addams of the Chicago Hull House, Barrett was very much a product of the Progressive movement and wanted to provide social and educational opportunities for African American girls in her community by founding the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls. What was social welfare reform like in the early 20th century? Have students read an excerpt from Barrett’s "Fertilizing Barren Souls," which originally appeared in the Southern Workman.

Discussion Questions:

  • What was the school’s first responsibility when a new girl arrived?
  • What was written on a clean page? What did this represent for the girl?
  • In order for the girl to make a good clean start, what did she need to do? What was the girl not to think about?
  • When a girl succeeded and received an average of 98 percent in two months, what did she receive? What did she receive for 98 percent in three months?
  • How did a female student become paroled?
  • How did girls lose the rewards they had earned?
  • What other rewards did a girl receive for constant good behavior?
  • After the parole of a girl, how did the school ensure that she did not go back to her previous behavior?
  • How do you think Janie Porter Barrett felt about punishment and rewards?
  • Do you agree or disagree with her philosophy? Why?

Based on their understanding of Janie Porter Barrett’s work with "wayward" girls, have students design their own plan for social reform in which their goal is to meet the needs of troubled youth. Students should come up with a mission statement, goals and objectives, an organizational philosophy, a plan of action, and a method for following up with graduates of their program.

The Sounds of Merry Music: Blind Billy of Lynchburg
[English 2.8 (f), 4.7 (f), 5.5 (c, d), 6.4, 7.5, 8.5, 10.5, 11.5, and 12.5]

Blind Billy was a Lynchburg fifer who had a great talent for music. Like other antebellum musicians throughout the South, he drew from European tunes and African melodic traditions to create American music. These types of tunes and poems often involved rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. Robert Burns, a Scottish poet, wrote numerous poems that have been set to music, which would have been familiar to Blind Billy. While students close their eyes (this will give them the experience of Blind Billy), read aloud to them "Auld Lang Syne," a traditional Scottish poem and tune by Robert Burns.

Discussion Questions and Activities:

  • What do you see in your mind when you listen to this poem?
  • What kinds of sounds do you hear?
  • Can you hear a beat in the words? (You might read a line from the poem and clap your hands to demonstrate what you mean.)
  • Why do you think the poem was written in this manner?

Fields Cook and Reconstruction Politics
(GOVT.6, USI.9, USI.10, VUS.7 (c), and CE.5)

Fields Cook, a Baptist minister and political party leader, ran for a seat in Congress in the election of 1869. Have students read the Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 20, 1869.

Fields Cook In The Field for Congress–He Declares he will put Mr Porter at a Discount.– Yesterday afternoon about four hundred negroes gathered on the Capitol Square to hear Fields Cook and others speak.

Fields addressed the meeting at some length, declaring that he intended to run for Congress against Porter at all odds, unless another convention was held and he was allowed to canvass the district thoroughly. He intended to hold meetings all over the district, and deliver addresses advancing his claims.

A negro attempted to speak in Porter⁏s favor, but he was hushed up before he had spoken more than a few moments. He was collared, and made to leave the stand because of his opposition to Fields. Several other speeches were made, and the meeting adjourned.

Source: Richmond Daily Dispatch, Tuesday Morning, April 20, 1869.

Discussion Questions and Activities:

  • What did Fields Cook intend to do?
  • Who gathered on Capital Square and why?
  • Who was Cook running against?
  • What happened when someone attempted to speak on the opponent’s behalf?
  • Activities
    • Political speeches are an important element of any candidate’s campaign. Each candidate must have a platform, must find appropriate audiences and venues for speeches, and must present a convincing reason why he or she should be elected. Have students list ten characteristics of a convincing political speech. Once students have determined what constitutes a good speech, divide students into groups and assign them party affiliations.
    • Outline the following scenario to them: The year is 1869 and the elections for members of Congress are on the horizon. The Civil War has ended and the Emancipation Proclamation has been issued. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868 as a Republican. The 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, the 14th in 1868, and 15th will be ratified in February 1870. Fields Cook’s opponent in the 41st Congress election is Charles H. Porter, a veteran of the Union army and a Republican. Fields Cook is running as an Independent. The first African American elected to Congress was John Willis Menard, from Louisiana, in 1868. He was denied his seat, however, after being challenged by his opponents. As a result, with this election Fields Cook could have become one of the first African Americans to take a seat in Congress.
    • Ask students to write a speech for Charles H. Porter of the Republican Party or for Fields Cook, who was running as an Independent. Have students compare and contrast the lives and political viewpoints of Cook and Porter. Consider their backgrounds and answer these questions as if you were Cook—then do the same for Porter. What would your position be on policies relating to freedmen, education, civil rights, and equality? Would you support ratification of the 15th Amendment? What is your plan for helping displaced families as a result of the Civil War? Would you change your speech depending on your audience? How do you win over your audience? Which organizations would provide good audiences and why?
    • After they complete first drafts, have students revise their speeches. Select one member of each group to present the speeches. The audience (classmates) will judge the speeches based on the criteria of a convincing political speech that was determined in the beginning of the lesson. The candidate who meets the most criteria wins the election. Have students research the actual outcome of the election. Who won, Cook or Porter? Why do you think that candidate won? Do you think the candidate’s speeches determined whether he won or lost? Were there other factors? If so, what are the other factors that determine whether a candidate can win over the people? What makes a candidate win? Is there anything the losing candidate could have done in 1869 that would have helped his campaign? What do political candidates do today?

In His Own Words: The Narrative of Fields Cook
[VS.7 (a), VUS.6 (c), VUS.6 (c), VUS.7 (a), USI.8 (d), and USI.9 (a, d)]

Born into slavery in King William County, Fields Cook began writing a narrative of his life on January 23, 1847, at about age thirty—perhaps about the time he gained his freedom, which he had obtained by 1850. In 1902 the narrative became part of the collection of the Library of Congress, and is one of the longest manuscripts known to have survived that was written by an enslaved Virginian. Have students read an excerpt from "Field’s Observations".

Discussion Questions:

  • Who taught Fields how to read and write?
  • When Fields’s friend went to school, what was Fields sent to do? What does this say about each individual’s position?
  • What was the deal the friend made with Fields?
  • What did Fields crave? Why?
  • How did Fields feel about Nat Turner? Why? Do you think this is an average reaction to the events? If you had been Fields, how would you feel about the insurrection? Would you support his opinion? Why or why not?
  • What specific item did Fields say black people were not supposed to have? Why? What did black people do out of fear of being caught with this item?
  • Southern slaveholders generally opposed slave literacy, while in the North where education for African Americans was not forbidden, blacks had more access to formal schooling. Why were there such differences of opinion between northerners and southerners? What did southerners fear would happen as a result of slave literacy? For further study, have students research antiliteracy laws. Why did these laws come about? How did insurrections such as Nat Turner’s rebellion affect slave literacy? How did African American literacy affect views on abolitionism? After Emancipation and during Reconstruction, how did literacy among African Americans change?
  • Frederick Douglass was born enslaved in 1818 and wrote a narrative of his life, which was published in 1845. Have students compare and contrast Fields Cook to Frederick Douglass. How are their situations similar? How are they different? How did these men use their education to accomplish their goals? How can you use your education to accomplish your personal goals? What qualities did these men have that made them successful despite the odds? What can we learn from the lives of Cook and Douglass?
  • Have students write a narrative of their own lives. What information would they include? What would they leave out? What information would be important for future historians to know about their lives early in the 21st century? Should they describe ordinary tasks, or describe their attitudes about events (such as how they felt when a family member went off to war or returned home, how they felt about a candidate’s winning an election, etc.). How does literacy improve people’s lives? Have students pair up with younger students in their school, siblings, or other people in the community who could use assistance with literacy skills. Have students write narratives of their experiences in teaching literacy skills. How was their literary instruction similar or different from Cook’s experience? What value did the learner place on reading? Was it important? Do Americans today value literacy as much as did Americans of the 19th century? Why or why not?

Black Women and the 19th Amendment
[VUS.8, VUS.13 (b), USII.3 (e), and GOVT.6 (f)]

Edna Meade Colson, Evie DeCosta, an instructor in agriculture at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute, and seven other women registered and cast their votes about 1920. To record this event they posed for a photograph at the Ettrick Courthouse in Virginia and named themselves "The First Colored Women Voters of Ettrick." What did this moment mean for them? Have students research the history of voting rights for both black men and women in the United States.


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