History U | America's First Civil Rights Movement

America's First Civil Rights Movement

This History U course explores the little-known movement for racial equality in free states from the nation’s founding to the Civil War and Reconstruction.


Course Instructor: Professor Kate Masur, Northwestern University
Eligibility: High school students


Image Source: F. Dielman, “Celebration of the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia by the Colored People, in Washington, April 19, 1866,” Harper’s Weekly, May 12, 1866 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01733.08)

Illustration of crowd celebtrating the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C.
  • History U

  • Free for high school students

Course Description

While the abolitionist movement is a familiar part of many history courses, we’ve known far less about activists’ fight for racial justice in the free states themselves. This History U course emphasizes African Americans’ leadership in this struggle; the overlapping nature of race, class, and gender oppression; the complex history of citizenship; and the changing political landscape of the antebellum United States and the US Constitution.

The course examines both small-scale histories and large structural changes. For instance, students will learn about the experiences of free Black sailors from places like Boston and New York, whose work brought them to southern ports where they were incarcerated simply because of their race. Other topics explored in the course include Black political mobilization and the work of White allies who fought for racial justice. Students will emerge with an enhanced understanding of the US Constitution, American federalism, and the Reconstruction amendments.

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The views expressed in this course are those of Dr. Kate Masur.


  • Twenty-four video sessions led by Professor Kate Masur
  • Links to optional resources
  • Short quizzes to review your knowledge
  • A certificate of completion for 12 hours of course time

How to Access

  1. Click Log In and either log into your account or click the Sign Up link on the login screen to create an account.
  2. Click the Register Now button and complete the order form.
  3. After registering, you may access your course by signing in and visiting your My Courses link under My Account.

Course Introduction


Alysha Butler explains what you will learn in this course.

About the Scholar

Kate Masur, Professor of History and Board of Visitors Professor, Northwestern University

Kate Masur is a professor of history and a Board of Visitors Professor at Northwestern University. Her book Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Norton, 2021) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and winner of the Littleton-Griswold Prize from the American Historical Association, the John Phillip Reid Book Award from the American Society for Legal History, and the John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. Masur is also the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, DC (UNC Press, 2010) and, with Gregory Downs, editor of The World the Civil War Made (UNC Press, 2015).

Masur coordinated a team that produced Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice. This online exhibit highlights early Black communities and Black activism in Illinois and includes biographical profiles of twenty-five individuals. She was also part of the editorial team that created Reconstruction: The Official National Park Service Handbook.

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