Dr. Jennifer Keene from Chapman University is presenting this morning’s conference keynote. She’s chatting about African American involvement in World War One with a special focus on propaganda posters.

Very cool stuff.

She starts by sharing a poster sold by a company in Chicago that was targeted at African American families around the country. And she’s doing the sort of historical thinking activities that we’re asking students to practice in our classrooms.

Sourcing. Contextualizing. Reading between the lines.

The poster is titled True Blue and highlights the home life of a

African American family. The father is a soldier serving in the US military whose family has posted his picture above the fireplace mantle.

True Blue poster

This type of primary source evidence can gives us data about what live was like during a specific period. So we want kids to start to ask sourcing questions – who created this, when, who was the audience, what was the intent of the poster – that helps them to start solve problems.

Keene suggests that these kinds of posters were designed to build patriotism and support for the war. They were designed to support American ideals. A similar poster titled The Colored Man is No Slacker was created to build the same sort of patriotism among African Americans across the country as True Blue.

man is no slacker

The interesting part of this story is the next step in the historical thinking process – contextualizing. Keene continues and asks us to look at some more evidence from the period. She presents a letter sent from a lady living in Melbourne, Florida directed at the US Postmaster General. In her letter, the woman highlights her concern that these sorts of posters were being mailed across the country. A portion of her letter stated:

. . . noting the considerable insolence from the Negro element lately, this is going to give people ideas.

Many others across the country, especially from Southern states, wrote similar letters. So now how should we and students look at this additional evidence. Many students may be upset that this perspective is wrong and racist and makes them uncomfortable. Keene suggests that we need to help kids see the context of the time.

The Espionage Act of 1917 was intended to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment, to prevent insubordination in the military, and to prevent the support of U.S. enemies during wartime. And it banned from the mail materials that seemed too radical. The US is at war and people were concerned that without full commitment from all American citizens, the war would not be successful.

So now we start to mess with the heads of students. How do these posters and these kinds of letters help us understand what was going on at the time.

So now we start asking kids to infer, to read between the lines. Keene suggests that Southern whites were concerned that by giving African American soldiers and their families the opportunities afforded by military service encouraged the sort of thinking seen by whites as “insolence.”

African American would try to change their social status, to achieve the middle class, and to change how Jim Crow laws would be enforced. This was seen as potentially treasonous activity and so letters such as the one Keene highlights were being written. And further context? The Postmaster General and others in the federal government also saw these posters as treasonous.

Need more Keene goodness? Download an excellent article here.

The scary thing? This kind of thinking is still going on. Keene shared the great story of Henry Johnson, a soldier who fought with French and who did not receive well-deserved recognition and medals until 1996. And like the concerns raised by the lady in Florida, this recognition upsets people.

More opportunities to source, contextualize, and read between the lines.