Ashes, Ashes We All Fall Down: Analyzing Perspectives of the Black Plague through primary sources

Title image source

Though I only just received my placement, planning a lesson for the Black Death seemed to be too good of an opportunity to pass up! I studied the plague as an undergraduate student and felt the moment we are living during the COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent opportunity to encourage students to grapple with the history of infectious disease by seeing how they impacted past societies.

Maggie and I partnered to create two Google Form lessons to lead the students in a source analysis exercise and to compare and contrast attitudes towards the plague with the modern-day. I designed these lessons for my 10th grade World History classes at Mountain View HS. The goal of the lesson was to help build students source analysis skills and encourage class participation by developing a discussion centered around comparing and contrasting the Black Plague with the current pandemic.

Link to form 1: “Analyzing the Black Plague Primary Sources

Link to form 2: “The Plague & COVID-19

Link to bonus form: “Survive the Black Plague” choose your own adventure quiz

Black Death spread map. Source

The Black Plague was a deadly pandemic that devastated Europe, Asia and Northern Africa in the mid-1300s. The traveled along trade routes and is thought to have killed between 1/3rd to 1/2 of of people in Europe. Some cities and towns became abandoned due to the wide-spread effects.

Agnolo Di Tura, Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle
Plague doctor image
Plague spread map
“A Most Terrible Plague”: Giovanni Boccaccio
Union County Government COVID-19 infographic
Plague Symptoms painting
Ars sive artes from BL Royal 6 E VI, f. 138v
Street during the plague in London with a death cart
The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome
Plague; carting the dead, by Moynet

Eugene V. Debs and the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917

This Google Forms mini-lesson will guide students through understanding a time when freedom of speech was at odds with U.S. national security interests during WWI. I enjoyed how this form allowed me to include a variety of primary source documents and background information for students to analyze. The Google forms question prompt allows for a variety of assessment options and is fully customizable depending on the lesson at hand.

The target student group for this lesson would be high school U.S. history or government class. This mini-lesson would be part of a larger unit on WWI. If I were doing this mini-lesson in a classroom, I think it could be engaging to direct students to review the primary source materials, answer the questions and come back to discuss their opinions. This lesson could be part of a series of class stations students would work through covering related topics, with the Google Forms being used to help facilitate critical thinking and class discussion.

Here is a direct link to the Google Form.

Analyzing Organized Labor Through Images

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Title: J.J. Ettor speaking to striking barbers – Union Square, N.Y, from the Library of Congress, 05/17/1913

Context: This photo shows labor leader Joseph James Ettor speaking to the Brooklyn barber’s union during the Brooklyn barbers’ strike of 1913. The large sign in the middle of the picture states “I.W.W.” along with demands for specific changes in working conditions in big bold letters. The I.W.W., or Industrial Workers of the World were a labor union group that sought to organize unskilled laborers to advocate for improved working hours, pay and conditions.

Icebreaker prompt: Analyze the image caption. Does it help the viewer understand the image? Create a new caption for the image.

Response: The image caption states what is happening, but could provide more context and agency to the strike. One potential new caption could be “I.W.W. and Brooklyn Barbers’ Union Strike For Better Working Conditions Conditions.”

Title: Picket line at Mid-City Realty Company, South Chicago, Illinois from the Library of Congress, 07/1941

Context: This photo is believed to be of a picket line at the Mid-City Realty Company in South Chicago, Illinois. The photo features strikers holding signs reading “Slavery was abolished – YET we work for $8 a week” and “Mid City Realty Unfair – Underpays his workers. Overcharges his tenants. Support the strike.”

Icebreaker prompt: Brainstorm a list of questions and rank them by your order of curiosity.

– What are the working conditions like at Mid-City Realty?
– What role did racism play determining how the strikers were treated by their employers?
– How did conditions differ for both male and female employees?
– Why do the workers think they are treated unfairly?
– How much was $8 a week worth during this time period?
– How long did the employees strike, and did they get their demands?
– Who was the owner of Mid-City Realty Company?

Title “The only way out – fighting them with their own weapons,” by Udo Keppler from Puck Magazine, 05/27/1903

Context: This cartoon is titled “The only way out,” by cartoonist Udo Keppler. The caption at the bottom states, “The only way out – fighting them with their own weapons.” The cartoon features a representative of the “Employers Union” gesturing at a “right to lock out” sign, much to the shock of laborers.

Icebreaker prompt: Analyze the bias of the image. How does the arrangement of the image create bias?

Response: The cartoonist is biased in favor of the factory owners and employers. The employer is the focus of the image and is much larger in stature compared to the three employees. Additionally, the cartoon states that locking the employees out is “as absolute as the [workers] right to strike.” The arrangement enforces this bias because while the workers are locked out, construction continues behind the employer.

Going Bananas for Historical Images: A Visual History of the United Fruit Co.

Featured image source

One of the most fascinating topics I studied as an undergrad was about the sinister role the United Fruit Company, known today as Chiquita Banana, played in shaping the history of Central and Latin America. The fruit followed a long, and complicated path to become the “world’s fourth major food, after rice, wheat and milk.”[1]. It’s bizarre to think of the innocent banana toppling governments and becoming a symbol of U.S. global imperialism, but the yellow fruit certainly has a checkered past!

Wear-Ever United Fruit Company “Great White Fleet” cooking utensil advertisement from 1920 source
Notice that this this advertisement mentions the United Fruit Company’s ‘Great White Fleet.” What do you think the relationship is between a cruise line and the fruit company?
The advertisement is actually for ‘Wear-Ever’ Aluminum Cooking Utensils. Do you think viewers of this ad would have known what the advertisement was for, and would the average person have been familiar enough with the Great White Fleet’s cooking equipment?

Citation: Evening public ledger. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), 02 March 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Workers loading bananas onto rail cars in Costa Rica source
What is the point of view of the person who captured this image? Are they advertising for the United Fruit Company?
From the caption we know this picture was taken in the banana fields of Costa Rica. Notice the different clothing the subjects of the image are wearing. What can we infer about the power dynamics between different individuals at the banana fields? How might the conditions Costa Rican banana field workers faced differ from that of Western-European/Americans?

Citation: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1900). Loading Bananas into Plantation Cars for Transportation, Banana Fields, Costa Rica, C. A. Retrieved from

Three men on boats transporting bananas to markets in Panama source
The previous image showed men loading bananas into a rail car, and here these men are floating bananas in a boat. Are these men transporting bananas for consumption in the U.S., or locally? What can we infer about the importance of bananas as a food source in the region?
The individual at the front of the boat appears to have a pot with food behind him. I wonder how long these men have been on this boat. What types of infrastructure would need to be in place to transport the fruit such long distances locally and to the U.S. without rotting?

Citation: Carpenter, F. G. Three men in a boat transporting bananas to the city markets in Panama. Panama, None. [Between 1890 and 1923] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

You can learn more about United Fruit Company by listening to this episode of Throughline on NPR.

[1] Kurtz-Phelan, Daniel. 2020. “Big Fruit”. The New York Times.