Black Virginians in Blue

"Making Every Slave Free, and Every Free Man a Voter": African American Politics, 1861-1870


Virginia State Standards Fulfilled by this Lesson:

 USI.9 /VUS.7

d/a) describing major events and the roles of key leaders of the Civil War era, with emphasis on Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass;

f)/c) describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers (including African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

Lesson Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will learn how African Americans fought, both on the battlefield and as activists, for their right to participate fully in American Democracy.
  2. Students will understand how Frederick Douglass emerged as an important Black leader in the Civil War era, championing the abolition for slavery and equality for Black men in a reunited United States.
  3. Students will investigate the life of James T.S. Taylor, an African American soldier in the Union Army who faced discrimination while in uniform and went on to become an important political leader in his home community after the Civil War.
  4. Students will interpret and analyze primary sources, recognizing how historians come to know more about the past through documents written for practical purposes and how they put those primary sources into conversation with the existing scholarship. 

Approximate Length of Time: 2 hours


  1. General Reading on Frederick Douglass & James T.S. Taylor
  2. BVIB Essays:
  3. Primary Sources:

Activity Procedure

  1. Distribute the the secondary sources. Students should note the different formats for the general readings (encyclopedia entry vs. magazine article) and how the authors approach their work differently for each type of media. The students should also respond to the following questions in writing as they read the BVIB essays:
    • Why were African Americans excluded from the Union army at the beginning of the Civil War?
    • What arguments did Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists make to encourage the Lincoln administration to accept Black soldiers? What goals did they hope Black service would accomplish?
    • How did Northern White attitudes toward the idea of having Black Union soldiers change throughout the war?
    • How unique dangers and forms of discrimination did USCT soldiers face once they were enlisted in the Union army?
    • What challenges did Black veterans face after the Civil War? How did they overcome these obstacles?
  2. Divide the students into small groups and distribute the primary sources written by Frederick Douglass to one half of the groups and those written by James T.S. Taylor to the other half of the groups. As a group, have the students write a brief summary (it can be in bullet point form) of who wrote the document, why they wrote it, and what it tells us about them/their situation as this moment. Then, have the students discuss how each document sheds light on the broader experiences and goals of the individual in question and how historians might use each document to support claims they might make about each man’s career and influence on the Civil War era.

Individually in class, or as a homework assignment, provide students with the set of primary sources they have not yet read and have each write a short reflection of 300-500 words explaining how the new sources improve their understanding of the individual and of the Black political experience in the Civil War era

Lesson plan created by: Ian Iverson

Image: Harper's Weekly, 16 November 1867