African American Lives 2 -- Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In Search of Our Roots -- Buy the companion book now from ShopPBS

"The Freedom to Fight"
by D. Andrew Yamato

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This lesson explores the experience of African American soldiers in the Civil War, examining their motivations for enlisting, the prejudices they faced in the military, and their courage under fire which helped earn them respect as soldiers and citizens. It also explores the ways in which racism and discrimination against African Americans remained pervasive in the US military through the end of World War II, and how desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 helped set a precedent for the rest of American society.

In the Introductory Activity, students will analyze various motivations for wartime military enlistment by examining several armed forces recruitment posters from the Civil War to the present day, with special consideration being given to the reasons why African Americans joined the Union Army during the Civil War. The Learning Activity begins with an online interactive game that will help students understand Abraham Lincoln's decision to recruit African American soldiers immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation. Students will then explore the challenges experienced by these "US Colored Troops" both on and off the battlefield by viewing segments from AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES 2 and analyzing contemporary quotations about Civil War battles in which African American soldiers fought. A segment from the PBS series THE WAR will demonstrate that racism and discrimination against African Americans in the military persisted through World War II. During the Culminating Activity, students will learn about the dedication of the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and then be assigned to write a persuasive op-ed letter to their local newspaper, outlining African American contributions to the military.

This lesson has been designed for use during study of the Civil War, following declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation. It can also be used as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series African American Lives 2, or as an independent lesson for the social studies classroom.

Grade Level: 9-12

Time Allotment: Three 45-minute class periods

Subject Matter: History/Social Studies

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Utilize visual and textual cues to develop understanding of primary source documents;
  • Determine the historical context and meaning of primary source documents;
  • Explain the challenges faced by African American soldiers both on and off the battlefield during the American Civil War;
  • Understand the segregation and desegregation of the US military in the context of larger American society.
  • Persuasively describe the contributions of African American soldiers throughout American history.

From the National Standards for History for grades 5-12. available online at

Historical Thinking Standard 2: Historical Comprehension. Students should be able to:

  • Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative.
  • Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage by identifying who was involved, what happened, where it happened, what events led to these developments, and what consequences or outcomes followed.
  • Identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses and the purpose, perspective, or point of view from which it has been constructed.
  • Read historical narratives imaginatively, taking into account (a) the historical context in which the event unfolded-the values, outlook, crises, options, and contingencies of that time and place; and (b) what the narrative reveals of the humanity of the individuals involved—their probable motives, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • Appreciate historical perspectives--the ability (a) to describe the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, diaries, letters, arts, artifacts, and the like; and (b) to avoid "present-mindedness," judging the past solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
  • Conduct historical research, obtaining historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators. United States History Standards for Grades 5-12
  • Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877) Standard 2: The course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people.

African American Lives 2 (2008), selected clips

Clip 1: US Colored Troops

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Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Clip 2: First Act of Freedom

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Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

"African American Troops Training"
A 4-minute clip from the PBS documentary series THE WAR, available here as part of an online archive of video and images used in the series.

Web sites:

Army Strong
A present-day US Army recruiting poster from the Army's recruitment site.

Want Action?
A US Marine Corps recruiting poster from World War II.

I Want You!
The iconic Uncle Sam recruiting poster from World War I.

Defend the Right!
A Union Army enlistment poster from the Civil War.

Men of Color: To Arms!
A Civil War-era US Army recruiting poster aimed at African Americans.

Abraham Lincoln's Crossroads: Black Troops
A Web site from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, featuring an interactive game about the choices faced by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

African American Soldiers
A PBS Web site for the American Experience film "The Time of The Lincolns," containing brief accounts of the major battles fought by African American troops in the Civil War.

"President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces"
Front page of the July 31, 1948 edition of the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender announcing President Truman's desegregation of the military.

"Powell Praises Black Civil War Monument"
A Department of Defense article about General Colin Powell's dedication of the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

For the class:
Computer with internet access and projected monitor
Chalkboard or whiteboard
"U.S. Military Recruitment Posters" Answer Key (download here)
"African American Soldiers in the Civil War" Answer Key (download here)

For each group (1/4 of class):
Computer with internet access

OR (if Web access is not available):

A printout copy of the five recruiting posters listed above in "Media Components"

A printout of the "African American Soldiers" Web site listed above in "Media Components"

For each student:
"U.S. Military Recruitment Posters" Student Organizer (download here)
"African American Soldiers in the Civil War" Student Organizer (download here)

Prep for Teachers:
Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites and video segments used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students. Make enough copies of both Student Organizers for every student in your class. If your classroom is not equipped with four computers for group work, print out copies of the "African American Soldiers" Web page and all five recruiting posters for use in the Introductory Activity.

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

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Major corporate funding for African American Lives 2 and its outreach initiatives is provided by The Coca-Cola Company and Johnson & Johnson. Additional corporate funding is provided by Buick.
The Coca-Cola Company Johnson & Johnson Buick
KUNHARDT Thirteen/WNET New York