Civil Rights in Brooklyn: A Scaffolded Approach
Civil Rights in Brooklyn: A Scaffolded Approach

Students visit the archives three times to examine documents related to the civil rights movement in the north as part of a scaffolded research project.

Students visit the archives three times to examine documents related to the civil rights movement in the north as part of a scaffolded research project.


This scaffolded exercise uses one archival collection to introduce students to document analysis, the fundamental skill of archival research. It also teaches students how historians generate and address research questions.

Students begin by analyzing a single primary source document; by their third visit to the archives, they examine an entire folder from the collection. Students begin to develop an analytical question on their first visit to the archives and to refine them in subsequent visits. Their work culminates in an end-of-term research paper.

Students learn that historians form analyses based on the evidence they have access to, and that the information they gather is but one component of a much broader narrative. They understand that even abundant information in an archive can be full of holes, mysteries, and unexpected outcomes. At the same time, this exercise encourages students to form an original, substantive, and interesting argument with the information they do have.

Using the Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection at Brooklyn Historical Society, this exercise focuses on the unique history of the civil rights movement in the north. Studying a representative northern city complicates the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement as an exclusively southern struggle. Students learn about discrimination and poor living conditions in early 1960s Brooklyn, as well as methods of community response.


Students should be able to:

  • Explain why an archives is different from a school or public library
  • Accurately describe the events or issues highlighted in their assigned documents
  • Formulate analytical questions by identifying external information needed to fully understand their assigned document
  • Explain how various documents in this archival collection relate to one another
  • Craft a research paper with an argument-based thesis that blends analysis of their document and secondary source research


Before and between visits to the archives, I give lectures on civil rights, covering such relevant topics as de jure and de facto discrimination.

Students read Brian Purnell’s article “Drive Awhile for Freedom,” which offers a good introduction to Brooklyn CORE (see full citation in Further Reading below). They also read the biographical/historical note excerpted from the collection finding aid.


Because this exercise is designed to emphasize skills over content, an instructor can use this scaffolded model to introduce any content they choose.

Appropriate document selection is key to teaching students how to create a story out of archival material. To choose documents that will help students experience this project in a manageable way:

  • Use an archival collection in which individual folders represent discrete but related themes or sub-topics. (For example, the CORE collection contains subject files labelled with topics like “Traffic” or “Rent Strikes,” with the names of specific discrimination cases, or with campaigns like the “Christmas Buying Boycott.”)
  • Select documents from different folders for every group. Once the groups get into the original folders, it is best that two groups do not have to share a folder.
  • Each document should be roughly the same length, so that students move at about the same pace through the material.
  • If possible, select documents in different formats (newspaper articles, correspondence, press releases, etc.) to expose students to the variety of resources available in the archive.
  • Documents should all connect in some way. Students might not initially see the connections, but the instructor should ask them questions about the documents that will help them see the broader story at play.
  • Review each main document for vocabulary and concepts that your students may find difficult and make sure to provide them with the tools to understand them. Once the students get to the whole folder, empower them to find answers to questions on their own by using internet resources, dictionaries, and other reference materials. Then ask them how that concept connects to the issues at play in their assigned document.


Number of Visits: 3
Duration of Visits: 1 hour 20 minutes each

Groups of three students are assigned one of the following topics:

  • housing discrimination
  • employment discrimination
  • traffic safety in black neighborhoods
  • poor sanitation
  • rent strikes

This group size ensures that everyone can see and touch the document and that each student the opportunity to participate in discussions.

Groups are assigned based on observed strengths, weaknesses, participation to date, and overall student compatibility. I also attempt to break up students who always sit together in class to help the students network beyond their established social circles. In the archives, groups are seated far enough apart that conversations don’t interfere with other groups.

Students work in these groups for all three visits to the archives. During the first visit, each group will look at a single document and begin to develop analytical questions. On the second visit, they will examine the other groups’ documents and being to make connections among the materials. On the third visit, their original document will be reintegrated into the archival folder from which it came; they will examine the entire folder. These visits occur once a week for three weeks.

Visit 1 Agenda

10 minutes

55 minutes
Document stations

15 minutes
Wrap up

During the first visit, each group familiarizes themselves with a single document related to their topic. A student handout instructs students to read the document aloud, and then to discuss it based on a set of questions about the experience.

Wrap Up

Each group introduces their document and topic to the class, highlights important passages or aspects of their document, and identifies themes and common questions with the other groups’ documents. This wrap up promotes summarization skills and sparks a curiosity about what they will see in the next visit.

Visit 2 Agenda

5 minutes

5 minutes
Station #1: Review document from first visit

15 minutes
Rotate to station #2

15 minutes
Rotate to station #3

15 minutes
Rotate to station #4

15 minutes
Rotate to station #5

10 minutes
Wrap up

In this visit, students briefly review their document from the first visit, and then rotate among the other groups’ stations to look for connections across the documents. At each document station, students will use a handout with a set of questions to assess how their document links to each of the other groups’ documents.

Wrap Up

Students move into a large circle to discuss the documents as a set. Each group highlights which documents offered the most insight for understanding their first document, and shares additional questions prompted by the new documents.

Visit 3 Agenda

5 minutes

55 minutes
Document stations

20 minutes
Wrap up

In this visit, each group’s original document is reintegrated into the folder in the archival collection in which it is normally kept. These folders usually contain many documents, so students are encouraged to take photographs and to skim through the material to look for useful items. Again, they are guided by a handout.

This visit offers a good opportunity to allow the students to feel slightly overwhelmed in a well-controlled environment. Students begin to understand the volume of material historians explore when they work in the archives. They also understand that there may be many questions that they are not able to answer by using just one folder, one collection, or one repository.

Wrap Up

Students reconvene to discuss what they learned about the context and details of the event highlighted in their original document.

End Products

Students post regularly to a class blog throughout the project. Their research culminates in a final paper. Together, these assignments account for 25% of the total course grade.

Class Blog

In five blog posts, students individually describe their experience in the archives and reflect on their developing understanding of history as a discipline. The blog allows students to practice writing for an audience, and to discuss their experiences with one another. Each week, some students are responsible for posting an analytical question and the rest are required to respond in the comment section.  Doing this over the course of the semester builds an online dialogue. 

See prompts and assessment rubric here.

Research Paper

Students individually write a 4 – 6 page research paper on their group’s topic. The handouts that accompany each visit help each student develop the analytical question he or she will address in the paper. Students craft a thesis that responds to their question and support their argument with archival materials and secondary sources.

I provide a brief bibliography of scholarly secondary sources related to the content for students to utilize (see Further Reading below), but I encourage them to emphasize archival sources as they craft their story.

See instructions and assessment rubric here.

Archival Materials Used

Employment Discrimination
Press release, “CORE After 10 months of negotiations”, circa August 11, 1962; Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection, ARC.002, box 1, folder 9; Brooklyn Historical Society.
 click for image

Safety and Community Response
Flyer, “Will your child be next?”, circa 1963; Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection, ARC.002, box 1, folder 6; Brooklyn Historical Society.
 click for image

Housing Discrimination
Flyer, “Birmingham or Brooklyn?”, circa 1961-1964; Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection, ARC.002, box 1, folder 1; Brooklyn Historical Society.
 click for image

Rent Strikes
Press release, “Brooklyn CORE initiates rent strike on Rochester Avenue,” circa 1963; Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection, ARC.002, box 1, folder 3; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Neighborhood Conditions
Operation Clean Sweep flyer, circa 1962; Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection, ARC.002, box 1, folder 5; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Further Reading

Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Arbor House, 1985.

Farmer was the head of CORE at the national level

“The House We Live In” (episode 3). Race: The Power of an Illusion. Film. Directed by Larry Adelman. San Francisco, CA: PBS, California Newsreel, 2003.

Transcript available online.

Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy A. Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Meier, August and Elliot M. Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Purnell, Brian. “’Drive Awhile for Freedom: Brooklyn CORE’s 1964 Stall-in and Public Discourse on Protest Violence.” In Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America, eds. Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, 45-75. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Purnell, Brian. Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Sugrue, Thomas J. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.

To cite this page:
Sara R. Haviland, “Civil Rights in Brooklyn: A Scaffolded Approach,”, accessed [insert date here],


Sara R. Haviland
Assistant Professor of History
St. Francis College
view author bio >

Used In

History 1201: History of the United States, 1896 - Present

A survey of 20th-century United States history that fulfills the general education requirement.

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