Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Truman, World War One and Desegregation
Kate Sutter
American Government
Time Frame:
2 class periods
Civil Rights
World War I

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:

Students will read correspondence from Truman about desegregating the military as well as primary document background material about his experiences with minority groups during WWI.  They will work in groups to create a mini-presentation and work individually on a one-page essay.


The primary purpose of this lesson is to help students understand that  government leaders should do what is best for the country even if they personally disagree with the action.  The secondary purposes are to highlight the difficulties inherent in making decisions and to show that even the President cannot do “whatever s/he wants.”

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

   SS 2. continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world

   SS 3. principles and processes of governance systems

   SS 6. relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

   SS 7. the use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)

KANSAS STANDARDS (High School-US History)

Benchmark 1: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the emergence of the modern United States (1890-1930).

11. (A) analyzes significant developments in race relations (e.g., rise of Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration, race riots, NAACP, Tuskegee).

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

3. (A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary and secondary sources to interpret a historical-based conclusion).

Benchmark 3: The student understands how the United States Constitution allocates power and responsibility in the government.

1. (K) describes the purposes, organization, and functions of the three branches of government and independent regulatory agencies in relation to the United States Constitution.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Remy, Richard C. Ph.D. United States Government: Democracy in Action New York City: Glencoe-McGraw Hill, 2008. (see specifically pg 244-261, 406-41)

  National Archives collected documents/lesson plans (click title)

  Student-led research on African-Americans in WWI and II, desegregatiion of the U.S. military

Biographical information of Truman's role in WWI (click title)   

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Letter written by Truman on 8/18/48_to Ernest W. Roberts

Suggested changes to Truman's message on Civil Rights_(click title)

   Letter to Bess Wallace 14 July 1918  (Click title)

Executive Order 9981_(click title)

The Negroes Historical and Contemporary Role in National Defense__(click title)

Truman, Harry S.  Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman.  (Columbia: U of Missouri Press, 1997).

Technology Required:

internet connection (or hard copies), overhead/digital projector, misc. photos of WWI service by African Americans

Full description of activity or assignment.

Previous lessons in this Civil Rights unit will introduce basic concepts so that students will be prepared to apply Harry S. Truman's WWI and presidential experiences to his decision to desegregate the military in 1948. 

Students will free write an answer the following pre-written “bell ringer” question that states: “Can the President do whatever s/he wants?  Why or why not?”

Students will be led in a think-pair-share activity to converse about the checks and balances placed on the executive branch, and then they will share their answers with the class.  Then students will be placed in groups and given time to research the contributions of black soldiers in WWI and WWII through library time, homework, and/or provided with the aforementioned documents.  Students will then create a mini-presentation answering the following questions:

  1. Each group member should provide 2 summaries of war efforts by minorities, one from WWI and one from WWII.  (No one can have the same story.)
  2. Using facts from your research, why would black soldiers be angered having segregated units in the military?
  3. Using your knowledge of early 20th century society, why would (some) white soldiers be hesitant to serve with them?
  4. Do you think Truman thinks the contributions of black soldiers are a positive or a negative in the military?

Then for the second class period:

The groups will be given a copy of Truman's 18 August 1948 letter to Ernest W. Roberts.  After reading, they will answer the following questions:

  1. What event does “living eighty years behind the times” refer to?
  2. What is “social equality?”
  3. What does Ernie think about integration?  What does Truman think about it?
  4. Cite 3 examples of discrimination against blacks in America.

From your other research, briefly summarize one example of how black soldiers contributed in WWI and one example from WWII.  Was the contribution positive or negative (did it help or hurt the war effort)?

  1. What does this quote from the third paragraph tell us about Truman?

“I am not asking for social equality, because no such thing exists, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings and, as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight.”

Then groups will be given Executive Order 9981 and will answer the following questions:

  1. Do you think it was hard for President Truman to decide to desegregate the military?
  2. Why would he do it if he personally (at that time) did not believe in social equality?
  3. Why would a president have to make decisions he might not completely agree with?

Finally, as independent practice, students will complete a short essay incorporating material from the lesson:

“Do you think it is better to have the Constitution give us rules about the Executive Branch or better to have a king who can make whatever rules he wants?  Why?”  Use facts from our study of civil rights and types of government to support your answer.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

Students will be graded on three aspects of this lesson

  1. participating in research and group work
  2. appropriately completing all questions from the given packet
  3. one-page essay from final question    

Scoring is as follows:

          Participation in research and group work:                     total pts:               10     

                   Contributing to research during given class time                     1  3  5

                   Working cooperatively and appropriately in library                        1  3  5


          Appropriately completing all questions from  packet   total pts:               10

                   Completing all assigned tasks                                                 1  3  5

                    Complete paragraphs for #3 and #5                                       1  3  5


          One page essay covering the final question                             total pts:               20

                   Appropriate length                                                                           1  2  3  4

                   Appropriate content                                                                         2  4  6  8

                   Appropriate grammar and spelling                                                   2  4  6  8