Lesson Plans

Exploring “The 1857 Project: Extracting the Poison of Racism from America’s Soul” by William H. Freivogel

Illustration courtesy of Steve Edwards / Gateway Journalism Review.

Illustration courtesy of Steve Edwards / Gateway Journalism Review.


In this lesson, students will draw upon skills in the five dimensions of historical thinking by... 

  • Exploring William Freivogel's essay, "Extracting the Poison of Racism from America's Soul"
  • Identifying the central idea of Freivogel's essay
  • Drawing connections between their background knowledge of slavery and the claims made in the essay
  • Drawing connections between the legacy of slavery and contemporary U.S. life
  • Evaluating claims made in the essay


1. Use the Four Corners Activity (activity instructions and worksheet available here) to review and discuss the following statements. Start by having students read the statements below. Then have them select the three they consider most controversial (majority rules).

Note: This activity can be adjusted for remote learning. One suggestion is to use Zoom breakout rooms for the corners.

  • The U.S. has benefitted from slavery.
  • Slavery has caused more harm than good to U.S. society.
  • Some people benefited from segregation.
  • Race is an important part of a person’s identity.
  • It is important to study the history of racism in our region.
  • Laws, policies, and systems developed to maintain slavery and segregation have influenced laws, policies, and systems in current times.

2. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 is often presented as the event that officially and immediately ended slavery in the United States. Referring to the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, answer the following questions as a class:

  • What are the values stated in the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • How was the Emancipation Proclamation implemented, and over what period of time?
  • In what ways can you see those values working in contemporary U.S. society? In what ways can you see them failing?
  • How has the interpretation of this document changed over time? Who is responsible for changing this interpretation?

Introducing the Lesson:

Inspired by Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project, The 1857 Project is a special issue of the Gateway Journalism Review that chronicles the history of racial injustice in St. Louis, Missouri, and Illinois. It is called “The 1857 Project” because of the important events that happened in the region during that year with the Dred Scott decision and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This 80-page spring issue explores the history of race in the land of Dred Scott through visual and written pieces from journalists, activists, educators, and students.

“Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 essay in The New York Times Magazine last year on the centrality of race to the American experience is a profound statement of a truth that has long been in plain sight: Slavery, segregation and racism are central to what America means. They are central to the histories of St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois.”

—William Freivogel

This lesson plan is designed to introduce William Freivogel’s essay and The 1857 Project as a whole, through discussion questions and guided reading.

Key Names and Dates:

Names: "The Great Emancipator," Veiled Prophet

Dates: The 1857 Dred Scott Case, Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Civil Rights Cases of 1883, 1916 Housing Segregation Law, 1917 East St. Louis Riot, 1964 Civil Rights Act

Terms: Emancipation Proclamation, The Missouri Compromise, Lincoln-Douglas debate, Three-Fifths Compromise, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, 13th Amendment, 15th Amendment, 1619 Project, COINTELPRO plot, Abolitionist, Paradox, Segregation, Racism, Justice, Equality, Equity, Systemic Racism, "Welfare Queens"

Reading and Comprehension Questions:

1. Read this excerpt from William Freivogel's essay to identify his central idea.

Excerpt from “The 1857 Project: Extracting the Poison of Racism from America’s Soul” by William H. Freivogel

2. As a class, identify the central idea. Then, discuss the reading using one or both of the following sets of questions:

Connecting to Content:

  1. What do you know about racism, and where does that information come from?
  2. What do you know about the contributions of Black Americans to U.S. society, and where does that information come from?
  3. What are the ramifications of slavery in contemporary U.S. life?
  4. How does the story of the U.S. change if we imagine that the Emancipation Proclamation actually freed all enslaved people?
  5. What is national memory? How is it created? Can we change it?
  6. What is journalism’s role in shaping national memory?

Connecting to Structure:

Skim over the issue's table of contents (full issue text available here). You will notice that there are various types of texts included in the issue. How can each of these forms contribute to the conversation on the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S.? What is the effect of having all of these forms combined in one journal?

In-depth Reading and Discussion:

1. Read William Freivogel’s essay in full (pgs 4-8). While you read, analyze his argument by identifying its claim, evidence, and reasoning.  

2. Use one of the following graphic organizers to guide your reading:

3. After you read, use the Reading Guide for The 1857 Project’s Essays to help students explore additional texts in order to expand their context and understanding. Have students read a teacher-selected supplementary text, and/or a student-selected text from the provided list. 

  1. What picture does Freivogel paint of major figures in classical U.S. history? Did you learn new information about them from his essay? If so, why do you think this information wasn’t included in other resources from which you have learned about U.S. history?
  2. What are some examples of progress pushed forward by Black Americans during Reconstruction? How have these efforts benefited all Americans?
  3. Consider the title of this essay: “The 1857 Project: Extracting the Poison of Racism from America’s Soul.” What other possible titles can you imagine for this essay? Why do you think Freivogel ultimately chose this title?
  4. Analyze the text structure of this essay. How does the structure of the text reinforce its central idea?

Extension Activities:

1. Read The 1857 Project using the reading guide: The full project and a reading guide is available here.

2. Extension Activities: Six activities inspired by student essays are available as adaptable, supplemental student explorations of The 1857 Project. A list of extension activities to deepen student engagement with this project is available here.

Printable PDFs for this Lesson:

These PDFs of this lesson plan and all accompanying resources can be printed or downloaded and shared with students to use independently:

Educator Notes: 

Common Core Standards:


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.


Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.


Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claims.


Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

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