Until Justice Be Done: The Civil Rights Movement Before the Civil War

Teach Reconstruction campaign adviser and Northwestern University history professor Kate Masur joined high school teacher Jessica Rucker on Tuesday, Oct. 5, to speak about the people who courageously battled racist laws and institutions, North and South, in the decades before the Civil War. Masur’s book, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction, tells this story.

Here are a few reactions from the participants:

The entire talk was fascinating to me. I teach this history but not as part of the continuing civil rights movement.

I liked the focus on stories to teach history. Just first person, primary document stories. I think the kids would like and connect with them to learn.

The most important thing that I learned today was the Black resistance against laws and treatment in the Northern states of the U.S. The white backlash and charges against Blacks echo today in the white supremacy and proposed laws to limit voting and elections.

Just even learning the concept of a civil rights movement that took place pre-Civil War is enough. Again, another piece of hidden history.



Here are some main points of the session from the tweet thread by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member.



Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.


Listen to an audio recording of the session.



Here are many of the books, articles, primary documents, and more recommended by the presenters and also by participants.

Lessons and Curricula

Teaching a People's History of Abolition and the Civil War (Book) | Zinn Education Project ‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement, teaching activity by Bill Bigelow

Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War, teaching guide edited by Adam Sanchez

Who Fought to End Slavery? Meet the Abolitionists, teaching activity by Adam Sanchez, Brady Bennon, Deb Delman, and Jessica Lovaas

Reading Between the Lines: An Art Contest Helps Students Imagine the Lives of Runaway Slaves, teaching activity by Thom Thacker and Michael A. Lord


Related Books and Articles

Cover of Black Jacks by W. Jeffrey Bolster In addition to Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction, the following books and articles were referenced.

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster (Harvard University Press).

“The Courageous Tale of Jane Johnson, Who Risked Her Freedom for Those Who Helped Her Escape Slavery” by Carrie Hagen. Smithsonian Magazine.

“Mary Jane Richardson Jones, Emancipation and Women’s Suffrage Activist” by Jennifer Harbour. National Park Service.

“Decades Before the Civil War, Black Activists Organized for Racial Equality” by Kate Masur. Smithsonian Magazine.

Primary Documents

Side profile portrait of James Forten “Letters from a man of colour, on a late bill before the Senate of Pennsylvania,” a pamphlet by James Forten, 1813. Gilder Lehrman Collection.

“Missouri Black Soldier to His Daughters, and to the Owner of One of the Daughters,” a letter from Spotswood Rice, 1864. Freedmen and Southern Society Project.

“A Freedman Writes His Former Master,” a letter from Jourdan Anderson, 1865. Facing History in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy.

Tearing Up Free Papers” from the The American anti-slavery almanac. 1838. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL Digital Collections.

Illustrations of the American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840. Library of Congress.

Address to the Citizens of Ohio,” published in The Palladium of Liberty (December 27, 1843). Colored Conventions Project Digital Records.

For many more documents, visit the Colored Conventions Project.


This Day In History

Mary Ann Shadd Cary Feb. 10, 1780: Paul Cuffee and Other Free Blacks Petition for the Right to Vote

Aug. 15 – 22, 1829: The Cincinnati Riots

Sept. 20, 1830: The First Meeting of the Colored Conventions Movement

Feb. 15, 1848: Benjamin Roberts Filed the First School Desegregation Suit

July 16, 1854: Elizabeth Jennings Graham


Participant Reflections

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today? 

Two things: 1) The usefulness of making clear that there was a whole pre-Civil War “rights” movement in addition to just an “anti-slavery/abolition” movement; 2) That each personal story showed how other ordinary people were involved in the struggle to achieve a positive solution.

I think seeing this period as a “movement” — it shifts how you look at the time period. 

I am just starting to learn about the civil rights resistance actions in this period and this conversation made me want to keep digging deeper and learning more.

The connection that Jessica made between A) laws that allowed Black people traveling from ‘free’ states to slave states to be enslaved unless proven free and B) D.C. cops questioning her brother outside her apartment is really sticking with me.

The stories of so many individuals that resisted oppression. For example, John Jones and Mary Richardson.

The life of Gilbert Horton was new to me. It will inform how I discuss the free Black community during the Antebellum era.

The specific examples about how the civil rights movement was successful in Ohio to get rid of Black Codes 20 years before the Civil War.

I enjoyed synthesizing this information with what is going on today and other topics taught in history courses. Love the focus on Ohio, given that I like to make history local and I teach in Ohio.

Reconstruction would not have been what it was had there not been such  a high level of activism, petitioning, and risk by all the Black people calling for racial equity.

The concept of how petitions gave minorities a way to affect change and how the media (newspapers) played a role in that.

It extended the scope of how I teach/talk about Black resistance throughout history.

Inspiring to learn about the creativity and resilience of African Americans. . . but also heart-crushing. The heroes and heroines that we learned about gave all of us positive energy and respect.

This is a time period important to talk about in light of not just leading up to the Civil War but the discussion of equality vs. abolition and how that survives beyond the Civil War.

The importance of learning and lifting up stories of the Black struggle for freedom.


What will you do with what you learned?

I teach the 1960s Black civil rights movement to my kindergarten class. Now when it comes up, I will discuss that this was one of many civil rights movements that have taken place.

Work it into my current unit.  I have pivoted my first unit of government to be centered in Black voices in the founding era and I am excited to add to that.

Share it with other teachers. Incorporate some of the suggested reading into AP English.

I will revise my current civil rights movement class and some names and events from the book.

Make adaptations and additions to current curriculum to continue the integration of anti-racist materials into the euro-centric history curriculum.

Continue to link these stories with stories of resistance, voice, and agency.

I will create a lesson plan based on what I’ve learned.

I have already shared the links and resources with the history and literacy teachers at my school.

Be mindful and purposeful when teaching my unit on the period before the Civil War.

I will share these stories with my students as soon as possible.

I am 1. getting a copy of the book and 2. adding this information to my African American Studies class. We are talking about this period in US history right now.

Will share the information perhaps suggest our Race Unity Circle facilitate a study of this book. Hope to work on a story of one or more of these characters.

Absolutely use it as part of the narrative that Black people were an essential force in bringing equality to the U.S., and of course, they and allies have a long way to go still.

Teach and encourage the teaching of the early days of the U.S. in a context beyond the lead up to the Civil War.

Have so many resources to add to my curriculum.


Additional Comments

I participated as a mom of two young daughters and someone who is researching the civil rights movement in my hometown, which I never learned about, but which is fascinating. I plan to continue on this path to make this struggle more visible and specifically the role of Black activists, and to engage teachers in my hometown to incorporate this into their instruction. I am also thinking of ways I can work with my school district’s IDEA committee in Nyack, New York, to encourage teachers here to participate in Zinn Education Project sessions.

Thank you for such a wonderful presentation and evening. It was great to hear from Kate Masur. Her mix of scholarly discourse, leavened with powerful anecdotes, was so compelling. What a great teacher! Thank you!

The energy and style of both moderator and presenter were terrific!!! One of the most engaging sessions.



Kate Masur is professor of history at Northwestern University where she specializes in the history of race, politics, and law in the nineteenth-century United States. In addition to Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, she is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. and, with Gregory Downs, The World the Civil War Made. She and Downs are co-editors of the Journal of the Civil War Era, published by University of North Carolina Press.

Jessica A. Rucker is an electives teacher and department chair at Euphemia Lofton Haynes Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice and was a participant in the 2018 NEH Summer Teacher Institute on the grassroots history of the Civil Rights Movement. She is a native Washingtonian and community accountable scholar with more than a decade and a half of youth development and community education expertise.

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