The lesson attempts to take a variety of statements from the official correspondence of John Gary Evans, South Carolina’s Governor from 1895 to 1897, and illuminate the complexity of thought on race during this era.
The challenge of this lesson is to take three different arguments that are not clearly related and construct a position on Governor Evans’ attitude about the South Carolina African-American Community. The ability of students to infer or interpret Governor Evans’ position from one letter was usually done well. Certainly, as we see in the first student sample, her understanding of Evans’ direction to R. McLendon “He seems to be against the KKK” is an acceptable interpretation of the source. In student sample 2, the student argues that the letter to the A.M.E. ministers is really political in its purpose. He states “This letter is most likely just a letter to get votes and Evans’ tone sounds fake.”
What did not work?
Although the discussion that followed did allow for some consideration of Evans’ motive in sending these letters, the written part of the activity still led to some superficial responses. This activity was done in an honors level classroom. Their ability to grasp the basic idea of the memo or letter should have been predictable. Next time, the prompt will direct them to question why the memo or letter was written in addition to paraphrasing the message.
The more complex task was to take three different positions and develop a more comprehensive explanation of Evans’ position. As I moved around the room, the students struggled to find common themes between the letters. Certainly, they saw some contradictions on the surface. For example, some thought Evans had positive reactions toward the black community in the Coit and McLendon letters, but a rather negative tone in the Jordan letter.
Eventually, I was able to discuss themes with each group and they were able to tease some general ideas out of the sources. The most frequent statement was that Evans was acting for political interests. The student has this to say in student sample 3 “Governor Evans is pretending to care. He is just going through the motions, barely doing enough to be politically correct. In the letter to the sheriff, Gov. Evans just asks that some thing is done to the Klu Klux, but doesn’t offer any help or advice.” The student in sample 1 hits a very prevalent concern in two of the letters, violence. She says “concerned about racial violence.”
The other concern I have looking at the entire set of responses is the lack of evidence from the sources to support their generalizations. I consider this to be a common problem amongst students. At this stage in their skills development, it is important to make them go through the steps of showing the link between their arguments and the evidence.
How can lessons be improved?
This is the first assignment these students have faced that call upon them to incorporate several sources to render an interpretation. Certainly, more experience with this type of exercise would help to a certain extent. I am more inclined to find two or three additional sources to muddy the interpretive waters even more. I will add additional prompts in the future. As I stated earlier, I would like students to consider motive for sending the letter. Another prompt will ask students to explain which source has the greater veracity. Answering these questions before moving into their small groups may help in developing a more complex description of Evans.