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Imperfect Freedom


The period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877. It was a time of rebuilding and reunifying the war-ravaged country as more inclusive and without slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves in rebelling states only. It was not until the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the constitution that slavery was made illegal. It was soon followed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which clarified the meaning of "citizen" and the protections citizenship conferred. The former Confederate states were required to accept these amendments as a condition of their readmission to the Union. Though each state did so, both state governments and individuals still found ways to deny African Americans their rights as citizens. In this lesson, students compare the hopes and expectations created by the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction amendments to the realities of discrimination after slavery.


In this lesson, students:

  • Identify the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments
  • Consider the perspectives of newly freed people
  • List problems encountered by freed people
  • Reflect on why discrimination persisted after slavery came to an end in the United States



  1. Review with students the steps taken to abolish slavery in the United States. Emphasize what each step accomplished and what it did not do.
    • Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in some areas, it did not make slavery illegal. (The red areas are those in which enslaved people were declared free; slavery was allowed to remain in the blue areas.)
    • The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal throughout the United States, but did not say anything about how freed people should be treated.
    • The Fourteenth Amendment clarified that anyone born or naturalized in the United States was a citizen and should have equal protection under the law—meaning freed people were citizens.
    • The Fifteenth Amendment recognized the right of African American men to vote.
  2. Distribute the Early Days of Freedom Chart. Model the first row for the class. Explain that for the first box, students should pretend they are an enslaved person hearing about the Emancipation Proclamation. What would they hope the Proclamation means? In the second box, write what actually happened. Refer to the Early Days of Freedom Chart Answer Key.
  3. Give each student a Glossary. Walk students through the definitions, clarifying and/or adding information as appropriate. Tell students they will use this Glossary as a word bank to fill in the third column of the chart.
  4. Allow time for students to complete the remainder of the chart individually or in small groups.
  5. Ask students to share their answers in a teacher-guided class discussion. Refer to the Teacher Answer Key for guidance. Accept any answers students can defend.
  6. Have students answer the reflection question on a separate sheet of paper. If desired, lead a class discussion on possible answers to the question. Some points of discussion could be:
    • whites seeking to keep political and economic power
    • fear of change; allure of "traditional" social structure
    • white southerners trying to recreate a kind of slavery
    • the idea of racial superiority

Lesson Extension

Give students a list of the amendments to the Constitution (there may be one in their textbook). Review with students why amendments are added to the Constitution. Have students individually or in groups come up with an amendment they would like to see added to the Constitution. Students should then write a persuasive paper, give a persuasive speech, or design a TV or print advertisement advocating their amendment.

This lesson was written by Dee Besl, Cincinnati, OH, and Sharon Sobierajski, Buffalo, NY.