Leo Frank: Anti-Semitism, Class Warfare, Media Hysteria

» 29 April 2016 » In History / DBQ's » No Comments

Leo-frank-police-have-the-strangler-headlineMy Social Studies Methods class at the University of Portland recently published a free multi-touch iBook - Exploring History: Vol III (free iTunes). It features thirteen engaging questions and historic documents that empower students to be the historian in the classroom. For more info on our project and free download of multi-touch iBook and pdf versions click here. To better publicize student work, I’m featuring each chapter in it’s own blog post. (Sixth of 13)

The Lynching of Leo Frank by Jeff Smith 
Download at 3MB pdf

My great-grandfather, William Smith, was one of the lawyers involved in the trial of Leo Frank.

In the early morning of April 27th, 1913, the body of Mary Phagan was found strangled to death in the basement of an Atlanta, GA pencil factory. Next to her body the police discovered two semiliterate notes that seemed at first to have been written by her (“i wright while play with me,” read one) but were plainly the work of someone else.

The investigation focused on two suspects: Jim Conley, the factory’s black janitor who was arrested after he was seen washing out a bloody shirt a few days after the murder, and Leo M. Frank, the factory’s Jewish supervisor and the last man to admit to seeing Mary Phagan alive.

After intensive interrogation, Conley claimed Frank committed the murder when the girl rejected his sexual advances. Conley added that Frank dictated the notes to him in an effort to pin the crime on another black employee.

Frank and Conley were both arrested, and the ensuing trial captivated the entire city of Atlanta. The case also brought to the forefront the ugly realities of bigotry, prejudice, and hatred in the South.


Reflection by Jeff Smith

As I began thinking of topics for our document-based lessons, my mind immediately went to a topic with a strong family connection.  My great-grandfather, William Smith, was one of the lawyers involved in the trial of Leo Frank. (representing Jim Conley).

However, this dark chapter in the history of Atlanta, Georgia and the Jim Crow South is heavy material, dealing with racism, bigotry, prejudice and lynching.  All are certainly important issues worthy of a lesson, but the incident is not the most light-hearted affair.  I thought I might prefer to investigate in-depth a more approachable topic, but my family ties made the subject too attractive to ignore.

I was indeed correct in the difficulty of the material, and, as I dug deeper, ugliness after ugliness bubbled to the surface.  The topic also began to touch on a broad range of issues in the South, and focusing my lesson on specific documents and skills became an problem.  I decided to focus on media coverage of the event, comparing the coverage of competing local papers and the unseemly journalism that was practiced.

The most frustrating part of my research experience stemmed from the controversial nature of the topic.  As I google-searched various people and incidents, I noticed odd websites popping up.  I learned a bit more about these websites, and apparently the lynching of Leo Frank continues to be a linchpin topic for hate groups to this day.  There are several phony educational sites, published by hate groups, detailing “evidence” of Frank’s guilt and the conspiracies working to have him pardoned.  Unfortunately, these sites seemed to have hi-definition copies of famous photographs from the case, and it proved difficult sifting through the fake sights to obtain quality documents from reputable sources.

Overall, I felt the iBooks DBQ project was the most meaningful piece of work I produced in the MAT program this semester.  Not only did I learn more about my own family’s history, but I also obtained a useful new tech skill.  

In fact, in my spring placement I’ve decided to have my students use iBooks author to do a project of their own, presenting a story from a revolutionary period in the form of a children’s book.  The kids will create iBook chapters, assemble them into a collection, and present their stories to an elementary school class.  Their work will then be made available for the whole school to peruse, and for next year’s 7th graders to refer to when making their own book.

Image credit: Wikimedia: The Atlanta Georgian, April 29, 1913

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Mitch McConnell Flunks US History


The central argument being raised by Republican Senators who refuse to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court is “Let the people have a voice.” So I have to keep Mitch after class to review how the Founding Fathers designed the Supreme Court

Tags: , , , , , ,

Portland to March for Civil Rights Hero – Minoru Yasui

Minoru Yasui-featured

Join us in retracing Minoru Yasui’s 1942 walk for civil rights and social justice protesting Executive Order 9066 (which led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII.) Portland Oregon March 28, 2016

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Cultural Imperialism: Who Stole Cleopatra’s Needles?


Interactive DBQ explores the debate over art plunder of cultural property through the case of Cleopatra’s Needles.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Samurai: Sources of Warrior Identity in Medieval Japan


Student designed interactive DBQ explores Medieval depictions of the Samurai to answer the question of what it means to be a warrior in Japan and the place of the warrior in society.

Tags: , , , , ,

Strange Fruit: Media Coverage of the Waco Horror


Student designed interactive DBQ explores the media coverage of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, a 17 year old African American man from Waco, Texas – one of the most heinous acts of government sanctioned mob “justice” in American society.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Uprooted: Russell Lee FSA Photo Exhibit


During the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans, some 33,000 Nikkei left concentration camps to work as seasonal farm laborers, often in the sugar beet industry. UPROOTED introduces their story. This traveling exhibit features a selection of images from federal photographer Russell Lee’s documentation of farm labor camps in Oregon and Idaho. Through Lee’s photographs, new research, and firsthand accounts from farm laborers themselves, the exhibit uncovers the rarely told story of life in the camps.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Harlem Renaissance: Rebirth of Cultural Identity


Student designed interactive DBQ explores the theme “How did the Harlem Renaissance allow African Americans to express their experiences within American society?”

Tags: , , , , , ,

Close Reading Political Cartoons: Reconstruction


In this lesson, students will examine various political cartoons and other images from around the United States printed during Reconstruction. They will be asked questions of each image which will help them perform close reading skills and help them come to a conclusion about how the different types of American citizens experienced Reconstruction.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Driving While Black in Mid Century America


Between 1936 and 1966, the “Negro Travelers’ Green Book” (or the “Green Book” as it was commonly known) was an essential travel guide for Black Americans. The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections recently launched “Navigating The Green Book.” Users can enter in two US addresses and determine what Green Book recommended services they’d find along the route. An interactive map details Green Book listings from 1947 and 1956 showing business who would accept black clientele – hotels, restaurants, filling stations, tailors, beauty parlors.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,