History 175 primary source analysis

Instructions: Read the two primary sources provided and answer the following questions at the bottom. The length of your analysis should be at least a paragraph or more. These assignments should not be answered in only 3-4 sentences. An excellent analysis will be thorough and detailed, providing a lot of in-depth discussion. Use complete sentences and check your grammar/spelling. Submit your answer as a text entry or as a separate file, saved as a word document or PDF. The grading rubric is posted at the bottom of this assignment page. 

What does it mean to analyze and interpret a source?

When you are analyzing a text, you are breaking it down into parts to understand it. You then interpret each part by explaining it in your own words. You look at what it is, what the author meant, who the intended audience is, how ongoing events during that time affected the author’s argument, and why it is significant. As a result, you are doing more then just directly answering the question below.  


From Ida B. Wells, Lynch Law in All its Phases (1893)

After being driven from Memphis because of her outspoken opposition to lynching, Ida B. Wells campaigned to awaken the public to racial terrorism. This is an excerpt from a speech she delivered in Boston in 1893. 

I am before the American people today through no inclination of my own, but because of a deep-seated conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which lunch law prevails in parts of the republic…

            Although the impression has gone abroad that most of the lynching take place because of assaults on white women only one-third of the number lynched in the pas ten years have been charged with that offence, to say nothing of those who were not guilty of the charge… But the unsupported word of any white person for any cause if sufficient to cause a lynching… Governors of states and officers of the law stand by and see the work well done.

            And yet this Christian nation, the flower of the nineteenth century civilization, says it can do nothing to stop this inhuman slaughter. The general government is willingly powerless to send troops to protect the lives of its black citizens… The lawlessness which has been here described is like unto that which prevailed under slavery. The very same forces are at work not as then. [They] can be traced to the very first year Lee’s conquered veterans marched from Appomattox to their homes in the southland. They were conquered in war, but not in spirit. They believed as firmly as ever that it was their right rule black men and dictate to the national government… All their laws are shaped to this end—schools laws, railroad car regulations… every device is adopted to make slaves of free men… The rule of the mob is absolute …

            Do you ask the remedy? A public sentiment strong against lawlessness must be aroused [to demand] that equal and exact justice be accorded to every citizen of whatever race, who finds a home within the borders of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

From W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Like Wells, the black educator and activist W.E.B. Du Bois demanded equal treatment for black Americans. In The Souls of Black Folk, he sought to revive the tradition of agitation for basic civil, political, and educational rights, and for recognition of blacks as full members of American society.  

The silently growing assumption of this age is that … the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent towards time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have [refuted] the idea of blond races ever leading civilization…

            Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of swear and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this cast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years… Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,–we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

Analyze and interpret the document to answer the following question(s):

  1. Whom does Wells blame for lynching?
  2. In what ways does Du Bois criticize and in what ways does he seem to embrace the idea of inborn racial characteristics and abilities?
  3. Who is the intended audience for each of these documents?  
  4. How do Wells and Do Bois appeal to history to bolster their claims?

TIP: When analyzing a primary source document, consider who, what, when, and why. For example, how does location, current events (of the period), and who the author is play a role in the author’s intent/message? Remember that you are not just answering the question, you are also breaking down parts of the source to analyze and interpret the author’s message.

A successful and strong analysis will provide evidence (specific example from the text/quote) to help explain and support the interpretation. However, do not let the quotes overshadow your own analysis. 

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