America's First Civil Rights Movement, led by Kate Masur, Northwestern University

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This course explores the little-known movement for racial equality in the free states from the nation’s founding to the Civil War and Reconstruction. 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. The course emphasizes African Americans’ leadership in this struggle; the interpenetration of race, class, and gender oppression; the complex history of citizenship; the changing political landscape of the antebellum United States, and the US Constitution.

We’ll explore both small-scale histories and large structural changes. For instance, we’ll look at free Black sailors from places like Boston and New York, whose work brought them to southern ports where they were incarcerated simply because they were Black. We’ll also delve into the movement against racist “black laws” in midwestern states like Ohio and Illinois, examining Black political mobilization and the work of White allies who fought for racial justice. Students will also emerge with an enhanced understanding of the US Constitution, American federalism (that is, the division of power among local, state, and national governments), and the Reconstruction amendments.


  • Twelve lecture videos led by Professor Kate Masur, which can be watched at your convenience
  • Primary source readings that supplement Professor Masur's lectures
  • A certificate of completion for 15 hours of professional development credit

Readings: The optional readings are listed in the Resources link on the course page. You are not required to read or purchase any print materials. Quizzes are based on the content of the videos rather than the readings.

Course Access: After your purchase, you may access your course by signing in and going to My Courses under My Account.

Questions?  Please view our FAQs page or email selfpacedcourses@gilderlehrman.org.


Kate Masur is a professor of history at Northwestern University. She specializes in the history of race, politics, and law in the United States. Her 2021 book, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, 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.