Three Ways to Teach Civil Rights Through Geography

As we dive into Geography Awareness Week, I start with the reminder to all social studies teachers: social studies is more than just history. It’s economics, psychology, civics, and most importantly (yes, I’m biased) GEOGRAPHY. If you skip out on geography most weeks, make sure that this week you find some time to work it into your plans.

This year’s Geography Awareness Week theme is “The Geography of Civil Rights.” Rather than looking at geography with a civil rights lens, I’m looking at teaching civil rights using geography.

1. Make a MyMap of the Civil Rights Movement.

MyMaps is so easy to use. (Get some tips for using MyMaps here!) Students discover things on it long before I do.

Pick a number of events from the Civil Rights Movement. Have students plot where they took place on a MyMap. Have them include some pretty basic information on their pin—location, date of event, a two-sentence summary, etc. Have students embed pictures or videos on it. You’ll be amazed by what they can do.

Students can work independently on this or collaborate using MyMaps. Make sure you let them know what your minimum expectations are—most will go well beyond that!


2. Use a more recent map showing racial issues to get students thinking and talking.

A few months ago I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast (warning: there is some adult content in this episode) about racist Google searches. They described a map that showed where these searches came from. I found the map in a Washington Post article from 2015, and rather than tell you what it revealed, you should take a look for yourself.

Or you could have students take a look at this piece from the New York Times. It shows how 12 cities still have massive segregation issues. As someone who lives in the Chicagoland area, it was not a surprise to see how the different color dots were plotted on the map. Or take a look at this study guide on the “Racial Profile of the U.S.”

Image Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

So have students look at these maps and do one of the following:

  • Have students do a “see, think, wonder” about the map.
  • Have students develop as many questions as they can about the map. Then, find the answers to those questions!
  • Have students brainstorm other types of maps they’d like to compare it to.
  • Do a Socratic Seminar where students discuss the map without you providing the questions.

Don’t tell students what they need to know about the map, let them determine what is important, and guide them from there.


3. Show students The Green Book.

What is The Green Book you ask? It’s something that as a white American, I never would have had to worry about.

Click here to find a lesson in which students plan an itinerary traveling through the United States during the civil rights era using The Negro Travelers’ Green Book as their guide.

I first learned of this book from my fellow #worldgeochat moderator and blogger Ed Casey. He recommended a great 99% Invisible podcast episode that explained exactly what this object was. Short version: it was a book published in the 1930s – 1960s that told African Americans “safe” places to get gas, eat, spend the night, or even stop for the bathroom. It was crowdsourced by African Americans across the country at a time long before email, the Internet, or cheap long distance phone calls.

Trying to find an original copy of The Green Book will set you back a few thousand dollars, but I found a scanned copy of it from the University of Michigan. Find a terrific lesson plan using the Green Book from a National Geographic Certified Educator here.

Have your student take a road trip that they have done with their family, and apply the rules that African Americans faced at this time in history. Where would they stop for gas, for meals, for bathroom breaks, for the night? How much longer would their trip take because they can’t stop the way that we do today? Having students use this primary source to help them plan their journey on a MyMap or paper map will introduce both geographic skills of using a map, and the very real and harsh lessons of traveling during the Jim Crow era.



No matter what topic you are investigating in history, find ways to bring geography into it. The events of the past were influenced by the physical and human geography of the time. Help students get the balanced social studies diet they need—history, economics, civics, and GEOGRAPHY!

Chris is one of our #worldgeochat bloggers. #worldgeochat is a professional learning network at its finest—a community of learners who work with each other and for each other. Join us each Tuesday night at 9 Eastern/8 Central—click here for a list of upcoming topics!


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