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Chapter 3: The Atlanta Compromise, Reacting to the Past

By Iris Finkel

"No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them." —Frederick Douglass

The year is 1895, and you are one of a select few who have been invited by Booker T. Washington to listen to him rehearse the speech that he will be delivering to a large audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in a few days. After Frederick Douglass, who passed away earlier in the year, Mr. Washington is the leading African American figure in the South and beyond. You anxiously anticipate what the founder of Tuskegee will say, being acutely aware of the consequences his message will have on the future of the “Negro race.“ Your parents, former slaves, support your progressive views, but they remain comfortable in the roles they were left with after abolition and they accept Mr. Washington’s sentiment on conciliation. They wonder about the young W. E. B. Du Bois of whom you have spoken. Dr. Du Bois will also be among those who will listen to Mr. Washington rehearse his speech. Later, you will have a chance, with others in attendance, to give your honest perspective on the speech. You are excited to take part in what is expected to be a historic event.

The “you” in the previous paragraph is a role in a classroom game. In this game, students are participating in one of the most critical incidents in African American history, one that some believe was responsible for securing Jim Crow laws in the South for another 60 years. The people involved in these incidents were larger-than-life historical figures with views of what was best for African Americans and the recognition and the support of those in power for them to carry out their goals. While acting in these roles, students learn to understand how we make choices and the motivations for those choices, and how to communicate views effectively. They get to experience the many forces and tensions of the time, and recognize how those tensions continue to influence American history today, particularly African American history.

Reacting to the Past

The Atlanta Compromise Game, which I developed, is modeled in the style of “Reacting to the Past” games. In these games, students research and then take on roles of people of the time, attempting to carry out their agendas and persuading others in the process. Through this pedagogical model, students learn a host of skills—speaking, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and teamwork—in order to prevail in difficult and complicated situations. They must communicate their ideas persuasively in papers and in-class speeches and meetings, pursuing a course of action they think will help them win the game.

The Reacting to the Past games (RTTP) were conceived of and pioneered in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College. Professor Carnes learned from observations and discussions with students in his first year seminar courses that students were not comfortable discussing course content in class for fear of being judged by their classmates and teacher on a possible lack of comprehension. He also found that students felt a lack of connection to the required texts; they viewed the texts as “intellectual hurdles to be cleared” (Carnes 2004). Carnes concluded that if students were inhibited by their insecurities and not connecting, they might engage more if they assumed the identity of a participant in an event and if he took a more passive role in the process.

Scholars at Barnard College conducted a study on RTTP pedagogy from 1999 to 2005. Steven J. Stroessner, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker, all of Barnard’s Department of Psychology, invited students to participate in a survey on first year seminar courses in general, without revealing the intention of the study. The scholars were looking primarily at psychological factors and writing and rhetoric skills. Their survey results revealed that students had higher self-esteem, greater empathy, and the belief that people can change over time when participating in RTTP courses (617).

The Atlanta Compromise Game

Grant Williams, a civil engineer, turned Atlanta's 1887 Piedmont Exposition grounds into a larger venue to accomodate the more ambitious 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. Williams's plan included twenty-five buildings, a lake, fountains, and statuary.

Reacting to the Past documents typically include an instructor manual, a game manual for students, and role sheets. The following is a composite of these in the form of an instructor guide for the Atlanta Compromise Game. This section can be excerpted and adapted for students. Brief roles for up to fifteen players are included here, or students can make up their own roles as part of the game. The game is appropriate for students in an upper level advanced placement high school history course or in a first-year college seminar. It has been developed to take place over a series of four one-hour class sessions.

The famous speech that Booker T. Washington gave in Atlanta in 1895 is a critical part of American history with repercussions that reverberate today, over one hundred years later. The speech marks the beginning of the temporal setting of the game. Two major events set the stage for two counterfactual events played out in the game. The first of these is a meeting among a group of people invited by Booker T. Washington to provide their views on a rehearsal of the speech that he intends to deliver in a few days at the notable Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. The second is a meeting called by W.E.B. Du Bois to discuss the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling less than one year later.

Students acting in roles of personalities of the time, most historical and some fictional, are interacting with one another without formal instruction. After the first class, in which the instructor sets up the game, discusses the historical context, and hands out roles and the first assignment, students will take over in their roles to discuss the speech in the second class session. Continuing in their roles, students will discuss Plessy v. Ferguson in the third class session.

In Reacting to the Past games, the instructor takes on the role of gamemaster, operating as a participant and secretary, handing out roles and assignments, announcing voting, and collecting the votes. As instructor, you are a passive observer the rest of the time. In the fourth and final class, you facilitate debriefing and discuss contemporary events that relate to issues raised in the game.


The objective of the game is for students acting in the roles they are playing to persuasively defend the faction they are aligned with in order to win the votes of those who are undecided.

The roles that students play in the game align with one of three factions: support, oppose, and undecided. Supporters accept the separate but equal mindset perpetuated through Jim Crow laws. Those in opposition are against the laws and do not accept that African Americans can live equally if separate. Finally, those who are undecided are between whether to accept Booker T. Washington’s message of conciliation and acceptance or to join the opposition. The support faction and the oppose faction work to persuade the undecided faction to join them.


The roles of those in the two decisive factions are historical figures. Personas of fictional students attending Tuskegee Institute, like the “you” introduced at the beginning of the chapter, represent the undecided. One student character is based on a young man, William F. Fonvielle, whose account of travelling through the South in 1892, “The South as I Saw It,” was published in the A.M.E. Zion Quarterly, a magazine established in North Carolina in 1890 that was, from its full title, "Designed to Represent, Religious Thought, Development and General Character of the Afro-American Race in America." Fonvielle is aligned with the opposition faction, but this information should only be known to the student in that role. Those in the decisive factions know only that they must persuade the students to take their side.

There are brief bios for up to 15 roles provided later in this chapter. (See the game roles handout.) For larger classes, students can create roles that will be voted on for inclusion in the game. An unequal amount of players is needed for voting to not result in a tie.


Primary sources serve as the research materials. A suggested reading list is included after the game play section of this guide.

Name cards

Blank index cards

Pens or pencils

Class blog or Google document for students to post their opinion piece for peer review.

Prepare to play

Day One

  • Start the class by introducing the Reacting to the Past role playing approach. Explain that students research and then take on roles of the people of that time, attempting to carry out their agendas and persuading others in the process.

  • Follow with a discussion of the historical background and the setting for game play, encouraging student participation (40 minutes).

  • Hand out the typed version of the speech and role sheets, and play the recording of the the beginning of Booker T. Washington reading the speech (10 minutes).

  • Transition to role of secretary to hand out roles and give the assignment for the upcoming meeting.

Historical Background

In 1856, Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order, declaring freedom for over three million former slaves. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to the jurisdiction." The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. In addition, it forbade states from denying any person "life, liberty or property, without due process of law" or "deny[ing] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment went further, granting African American men the right to vote, declaring that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Reconstruction went into effect to aid four million newly freed men by providing education, workforce training, and land, as well as to encourage African Americans to live as equals. However, state governments in the South, dissatisfied with the change of status for all, established their own legal “black codes” that enforced separation of the races. This was under the guise of equal rights for all, separately. These codes, known as Jim Crow laws, disenfranchised blacks.

Booker T. Washington, born a slave in 1856, persevered through financial hardship to attend Hampton University. While there, he befriended the white founder of Hampton, General Samuel C. Chapman. Recognizing Washington’s potential, General Chapman appointed him head of a new school in Alabama. In 1881, Washington became the head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, adding to his developing reputation as an African American leader.

By 1895, Washington was an established representative for African Americans in the South. He was writing and speaking widely about the evolution and progress of his community, but less on the unceasing oppression that southern African Americans still suffered. In the spring of 1895, he was invited to accompany a committee of nearly all White men from Atlanta to appear before a committee of all White members of Congress to appeal for help for the upcoming Exposition. During his time speaking, as he recounted in Up From Slavery, he announced that that “the Atlanta Exposition would present an opportunity for both races to show what advance they had made since freedom, and would at the same time afford encouragement to them to make still greater progress” (101).

Two years after an 1890 Louisiana statute that provided for segregated “separate but equal” railroad accommodations, Homer Plessy, a fair-skinned African American, was arrested for violating the statute; he had deliberately tested the law, convinced that it was unconstitutional. He was found guilty on the grounds that the law was a reasonable exercise of the state’s police powers based on custom, usage, and tradition. Presiding at the trial was John H. Ferguson. After the verdict, Plessy filed a petition for writs of prohibition and certiorari in the Supreme Court of Louisiana against Ferguson, asserting that segregation stigmatized blacks and was in violation of the 13th and 14th Amendments. When Booker T. Washington delivered his speech, this important case was still pending.

Assignment 1

  • Develop your role using primary source materials, when available. In your role, think about the motivations behind your alignment to your faction.

  • Read and reflect on Booker T. Washington’s speech.

  • Write a position from the perspective of your role. Respond to the following prompts.

    • Do you support the speech? Why or why not? What would you suggest that Mr. Washington add to or remove from the speech? Why? If you are Booker T. Washington, why are you committed to the belief that conciliation is the answer? support Is there anything you would like to add or remove? If so, why?

    • Do you support Jim Crow laws? Develop a persuasive argument for why you do or do not support segregation.

Day Two

Day two will take place in a meeting room at the Tuskegee Institute.

  • Arrange desks/tables and chairs to simulate a meeting room. Have name cards available for students to pick up as they enter class. They will seat themselves, placing the cards in front of them.

  • The group convenes to discuss their views on the speech. Each person must state their position. Others can enter discussion to counter the position and then state their own. Booker T. Washington will state his position last.

  • As gamemaster, you should take note of time and urge each person to speak, particularly if one person attempts to control the discussion. Allow most of the class time for group discussion. Fifteen minutes before the end of class, in your role as secretary, stand up to say that the meeting will be ending in five minutes. Call the end of the meeting.

  • Hand out index cards for voting. Everyone will cast their (mandatory) vote based on the persuasiveness of positions represented in terms of separate but equal. Those aligned with a decisive faction are expected to not betray their faction. Undecided votes will determine which faction wins this round.

  • Collect cards, count votes, and call out winning faction.

  • Hand out assignment for next session.

Assignment 2

“Wilberforce, 24, Sept., ‘95

My Dear Mr Washington: Let me heartily congratulate you upon your phenomenal success at Atlanta -- it was a word fitly spoken.

Sincerely Yours,

W. E. B. Du Bois”

The time is now eight months later. After the meeting discussing the speech that Booker T. Washington was to give at the Exposition, Washington thanked you in a personal note for your attendance and for your opinion. He added that the words he initially wrote were the ones he felt most deeply and that inspired him to deliver those same words at the Exposition on September 18, 1895.

The ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson is decided on May 18, 1896. Angered, W. E. B. Du Bois decides to invite all those in attendance at the meeting before Booker T. Washington’s speech to discuss the ruling.

  • Look for an article to read on the ruling in a historical news source.

  • As the role you are playing, write an opinion piece about the ruling for a newspaper, persuasively stating why you support it or oppose it. In this alternate version of 1895, a class blog will serve as the newspaper publishing your opinion. Each person will read each other’s opinions before class. Additionally, prepare notes on what you will discuss at the meeting.

  • Write your comments on the ruling that you would like to discuss at the meeting.

Background on the case:

After Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act in 1890, enacted to allow rail carriers to segregate train cars, the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) of New Orleans decided to challenge the law in the courts. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a fair-skinned “octoroon” (a person of one-eighth Black ancestry), purchased a first-class ticket and sat in white-only car. He was arrested and jailed for remaining in the car. The case was brought to trial in a New Orleans court and Plessy was convicted of violating the law. He then filed a petition against the judge in that trial, Hon. John H. Ferguson, at the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that the segregation law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from denying "to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws," as well as that it violated the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery. The Court upheld the doctrine of "Separate but Equal" and ruled against Plessy.

Read the case here.

Day Three

Day three will take place in a meeting room at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

  • Your responsibilities as gamemaster will be the same as they were during day two, but you are now W. E. B. Du Bois’ secretary.

  • End the game with a quote from Du Bois’ essay “Of Booker T. Washington and Others,” published in Souls of Black Folk:

“In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing. In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,—

First, political power,

Second, insistence on civil rights,

Third, higher education of Negro youth,—

and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

  1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.

  2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.

  3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro” (53).

Assignment 3

Write a reflection on your participation in the game, including:

  • Your general feelings about portraying your role.

  • Your connection to the motivations behind the person you portrayed.

  • Your connection to the motivations of your faction.

  • Your perception of the historical events viewed through the role you played.

Read the following:

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. "Of Booker T. Washington and Others." Souls of Black Folk. Project Gutenberg.

Brown v. Board of Education ruling. 1954. Topeka 347 U.S. 483.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2009. “The Tragedy and Betrayal of Booker T. Washington.” The Atlantic. 31 Mar 2009.

Day Four

Debriefing and discussion of readings.

Discuss reflections. Encourage everyone to participate in this discussion. Those who do not participate will turn in their reflection.

Discuss readings. Suggestion for discussion: Consider a potential catalyst that could have rid the South of Jim Crow before 1954, when the separate but equal doctrine was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education.

Optional: Timeline game

  • For a class of fifteen students, create three identical timelines for three teams of five players. Use example below for increments.

  • Write one event from list on individual sticky notes. Make three sets.

  • Hang timelines around room, give each group a set of events. Each player takes two to three events to place on timeline.

  • The first team to place events correctly along the timeline wins.





Booker T. Washington speech at Cotton Exposition (1895)
Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (1896)
Souls of Black Folk published (1903)
Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s)
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956)
Mississippi civil rights workers’ murders (June 21-22, 1964)
Civil Rights Act (enacted July 2, 1964)
Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD and subsequent LA riots (1991)
Barack Obama’s first term as President of the United States (2008)
Use of #blacklivesmatter hashtag on social media (2013)
Ferguson protests after Michael Brown’s death by a white police officer (2014)

Suggested Reading List

"The Atlanta Exposition: President Cleveland Starts the Machinery in Motion." 1895. The New York Times: 19 Sept. 1895.

"Separate Coach Law Upheld: The Supreme Court Decides a Case from Louisiana." 1896. The Washington Post 19 May 1896: 6. Available in ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Douglass, Frederick. 1866. "Reconstruction." The Atlantic Monthly.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1899. "A Negro Schoolmaster in the South." The Atlantic Monthly.

---. 1903. "Of Booker T. Washington and Others." Souls of Black Folk. Project Gutenberg.

Fonvielle, W. F. "The South As I Saw It." A.M.E. Zion Church Quarterly (1894): 149-58. African American Historical Serials Collection. Web.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. A Red Record Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1895. Project Gutenberg.

Washington, Booker T. 1896. "The Awakening of the Negro." The Atlantic Monthly.

---. 1896. "Aims to Uplift a Race: Booker T. Washington as The Negro's Industrial Benefactor." The Washington Post 21 June 1896: 25. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

---. 1901. Up From Slavery. Project Gutenberg.

Washington, Booker T, and Du Bois, W. E. B. 1907. The Negro in the South, His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development: Being the William Levi Bull Lectures for the Year 1907. Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Co.

Washington, Booker T, Louis R. Harlan, and Raymond Smock. 1889. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Volume 3 1889-95. p 567-589. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.


Carnes, Mark. “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 2004. Web.

Reacting to the Past. Barnard College. 2016.

Stroessner, Steven J., Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker. “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates.” Journal of Educational Psychology 101, no. 3 (2009): 605–620.


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