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Evolution of African American Music in Pennsylvania

In this unit, students will expand their learning and knowledge of the significance of African and later African American music, as a strategy of survival, work motivation, community building, and an emotive vehicle of both joy and sorrow during the times of the Triangular Slave Trade and legalized slavery in the United States (including Pennsylvania). Students will ultimately gain knowledge and understanding about the impact and evolution of African American music upon the world right up to the present.

The unit is made up of three project-based lessons. The purpose of the project is to enhance students’ skills in primary source research and PowerPoint production and design and teach students about the power and influence of African American music in our world throughout history and today.

The three parts of the project are the following:

  1. Research a historical figure: Teacher will present an example of a historical figure associated with African American music in Philadelphia and explain what resources and skills students will need to do independent research. Students will then conduct research on one of two suggested historical figures and create a PowerPoint about him.

  2. Research a genre: Teacher will present an example of a genre of historically African or African American music and explain what resources and skills students will need to do independent research. Students will then conduct research on one of the provided music genres and compare/contrast that genre to the early work of the historical figure they chose. Students will then add this information to their PowerPoint.

  3. Presentation: Students will present their PowerPoints.


20th century

African American

Arts and Culture

Civil Rights




Big Ideas

Historical Context

Pennsylvania History

US History

Essential Questions

How can the story of another Pennsylvanian, past or present, influence your life?

How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?


  • State and local history can offer an individual, discerning judgment in public and personal life, supply examples for living, and thinking about one’s self in the dimensions of time and space.

  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding the history of Pennsylvania.


• Construct a biography of a Pennsylvanian and generate conclusions regarding his/her qualities and limitations

• Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in Pennsylvania.

Background Material for Teacher

"The Coming of 'Deep River'" by Wayne D. Shirley

"The Pleasure of Resistance" by Stephanie Camp

History of Marian Anderson

“African American Spirituals” Library of Congress

End of Unit Assessment

Students will complete and present their PowerPoint outlining the biography of one of the two historical figures (H.T. Burleigh or Francis Johnson) and a history of an African American music genre that compares and contrasts it to the style of their chosen historical figure. Students will be graded based on the presentation rubrics.


Plans in this Unit

Evolution of African American Musicians

Evolution of African American Music Genres

Grade Level

Middle School

Standards/Eligible Content




The Path to Freedom Teacher Institute was supported by a Preserve America grant from the National Park Service and administered under the Preserving African American Heritage in Pennsylvania program of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The program received Federal financial assistance for identification and protection of historic properties.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or age in its federally assisted programs.

PA Core Standards



About the Author

Mr. Regan and Mr. Clement, two high school teachers, created the framework for this unit plan during the Path to Freedom Teacher Institute in  2011.  Jessica Shapiro, an HSP intern, added to it and formatted it for HSP use.

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