• Give each student a copy of “A Tragic but True Story,” the brief account of Green Cottenham’s arrest, conviction, and eventual death. (This information comes from, Slavery by Another Name: The ReEnslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, a book by Douglas Blackmon. (The PBS web site for Slavery by Another Name will provide additional information.)
• Working with a partner, have students read the material and answer the three questions at the bottom.
• Conduct a whole class discussion, using the questions as a guide. If students don’t mention it themselves, point out that Alabama’s 1903 vagrancy law basically criminalized unemployment. (Many other southern states had the same kind of law.) If someone was stopped by an officer of the law and couldn’t instantly provide proof of employment, he was subject to arrest. Although vagrancy laws never mentioned race, they were reserved almost exclusively for blacks. There were many others kinds of laws that targeted blacks and made them easy to arrest.
Step 1 Distribute copies of the Encyclopedia of Alabama article on the convict-leasing system (small portions of the original article were eliminated to make the length more manageable – two pages.) Give students these instructions: “Imagine that you are writing an American History textbook and you want to include some bulleted information about the convict-leasing system. If you could use only ten facts from this article for your ten bullets, which 10 do you think are the most significant? (These have to be specific facts, not abstract generalities or opinion statements.) List those facts on a separate sheet of paper and, next to each, also write a statement that explains what this fact shows about the system and why that’s significant.” (Allow a reasonable amount of time and then check to see that every student has a list of 10.)
Step 2 Create (or allow students to organize themselves into) groups of 3-4. Give each group a magic marker and a large piece of paper. Tell them that each person is to read his or her list (and explanations about significance) to the others. After everyone has done so, then as a group they are to come up with an agreed upon list of the 10 most significant facts. They must write those 10 on their piece of paper. They don’t have to write down any statements of significance next to the facts, but each group member must be prepared to explain the significance of at least 2 of the 10 facts.
Step 3 Have each group recite and explain their 10 facts. Immediately afterward, encourage students to respond to each other’s lists. Did some facts appear on multiple lists? If so, what might that reflect? Can students connect any of the facts? How do 2 or more facts possibly relate? If the list could be expanded to 11 facts, what is one more fact they’d want to include in their textbook? What understanding or important knowledge would be gained by including that fact?
Step 4 Set up this scenario: “Now that you have your 10 bulleted facts to put in your textbook, what kinds of primary sources might you want to include as well?” (You could point out some examples of primary sources that are used in students’ own textbooks.) If students seem confused, offer them an example: “Would you want to include a photograph and, if so, what would it be a photograph of?” Allow students time to brainstorm and then list some possibilities on the board.
Step 5 Tell students you’re going to distribute a packet of primary documents (a total of 3) to each group. They are to examine their documents slowly and carefully with these questions in mind: “What can be learned about the convict-leasing system from each primary source? How does it help tell the story? Does it raise any questions you’d want answered?”
Step 6 After allowing time for groups to process the documents, bring the class back together. Show each document, one at time, on an overhead or digital projector and ask students to explain what it reveals, how it contributes to a fuller understanding of the topic and what questions it might raise that, if we had time, we’d want answered.
Step 7 Give out instructions for paragraph assignment and copies of the grading rubric.