Reconstructing Reconstruction–Comparing Primary and Secondary Accounts of Post-Civil War Georgia
Dave Winter, Grady High School

Overview: This exercise in critical reading achieves two objectives: one, it encourages students to see history from multiple perspectives, especially in voices underrepresented in their survey textbook; two, the activity also encourages them to interrogate assumptions and biases that shape the presentation of history in their survey text.


  • Pen and paper or computer time.
  • Copies of the primary document, in this case Carrie P. Well’s November 1866 letter, which appeared in the Spelman Messenger under the column heading, "Children’s Exchange."

Time: Approximately 1 hour.

Instructional Sequence:

  1. Students should have read and/or discussed the textbook presentation of Reconstruction schooling prior to beginning this activity.
  2. Distribute the letters and have the students read it. You can also distribute the guided reading questions, or if you prefer, hold the questions and use them to direct an open discussion (perhaps insert link to questions and remove from this page).
Questions for student response or for discussion:
    • What facts about Ms. Walls can we determine for certain from the letter? What can we infer about her from context?
    • What is the main message of the letter? What specific information does she convey? Is she attempting to inform, to persuade, to amuse, to inspire, or something else entirely?
    • To whom is Ms. Wall’s writing? What is her primary audience or audiences?
    • In what ways does this letter reinforce or complement the presentation of this historical period in the textbook?
    • In what ways does it depart from or contradict the textbook presentation? How do you account for this disparity?
    • What broader conclusion about history can you draw from the comparison of these documents? What role must the historian play in creating both primary and secondary sources? Which is more reliable? Which is more influential?
    • Write a definition of history that includes how a historian and students of history should deal with primary and secondary documents.
  1. Teacher guides class discussion that fleshes out the answers to these questions fully.
  2. Students complete closure writing assignment.


      1. Creative:
        Have students write Ms. Walls back in the voice of the "Little Folks of the North and South."

        Have students write Ms. Walls a letter in the voice of one of her students.

      2. Analytical

        Discuss how Ms. Walls’ letter and her experience complicates the textbook presentation of the Reconstruction South?

        Discuss the role of historian in presenting the history of disadvantaged peoples as both victims of discrimination and agents combating. How does the historian balance issues of representation against issues of accuracy and significance?


Evaluation: The evaluation might be as simple as direct questioning of each student during discussion. The teacher might assess a more formal assessment of the student writing, either holistically or more rigorously with a content expectation for each question or essay prompt.



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