Document Showcase: African American Citizen Action in the 20th Century

Document Showcase is a regular feature that highlights a topic from State history using records from the New York State Archives. Each Showcase includes sample documents, an historical sketch, and links to educational activities for classroom use. Click on the thumbnail images below to view the documents more closely.

Thumbnail of W.E.B. DuBois' letter to Ferdinand Q. Morton
Thumbnail of a letter from the Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem
Thumbnail of a letter from Mary A. Young
Thumbnail of a speech delivered by Elmer Carter
Thumbnail of the testimony of Leslie Levi, Jr.

Historical Background

African Americans' struggle for freedom and civil rights in New York, as in communities across the United States, has been driven by the actions of countless ordinary individuals and small organizations.  While students are commonly exposed to the most charismatic leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, the most memorable public protests, and the landmark court rulings and federal laws, individual acts by civic minded people are often lost to history.  It is these seemingly insignificant acts that have combined together to spread ideas, empower leaders, and ultimately force change.

In 1919, for example, W.E.B. DuBois enlisted the help of a lesser-known lawyer in the New York County District Attorney's office to seek justice in the case of NAACP Secretary John Shillady, recently assaulted in Texas.  Ferdinand Q. Morton succeeded in enlisting the support of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith in the call for justice.  The Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem likewise drew Governor Herbert Lehman's attention to the vital importance of the work being carried out by the New York State Temporary Commission on the Condition of the Urban Colored Population in the 1930s. 

New York State War Council member Elmer Carter used his office to lobby for an end to discrimination in the World War II defense industries.  New York City resident Mary A. Young brought a case of alleged discrimination to the attention of the State War Council Committee on Discrimination in Employment.  Leslie Levi, Jr. testified before the New York State Assembly Subcommittee on Affirmative Action regarding the opportunities provided to minority businesses under the Wicks Law.  Time after time, everyday citizens used the civic channels that were open to them to challenge their government and communities to extend equality and justice to all.

African Americans' struggle for civil rights and equality continues in New York and across the nation today.  The lessons evident in the many individual acts that have made up this struggle help us to understand the Civil Rights Movement as well as the general power of civic engagement and participation in a democratic society. 

Classroom Activities

Document-Based Questions and related activities on the 20th century civil rights, which are designed to meet New York State Education Standards

Civil Rights classroom activities PDF icon

For More Information

New York State Archives, Records Relating to African Americans PDF

New York State Archives, Legal and Correction Records

Biography of W.E.B. DuBois, presented by PBS

Library of Congress web exhibit about John R. Shillady

New York Times article about the beating of Mr. Shillady

“Stand Up for Your Rights” details fights for religious freedom, women’s rights, and school desegregation, presented by PBS Kids


Send questions or comments about the Document Showcase to the Public Programs Office of the State Archives by email at: or phone (518) 474-6926.