Essay 3 Assignment: Historical Legacy Argument

For Essay 3, you will be researching and writing about a historically significant figure (or figures joined in a common cause), era, event, or topic, and you will be making a claim of the legacy or importance of your subject. Why should readers know about your subject? What impact did your subject make on society and, indeed, on our lives today? This essay must be 6 pages minimum to 8 pages maximum in length, and it must contain at least 6 American River College Library sources to support your claims and develop your knowledge.

In the attachment below, you will find a former student’s historical legacy essay. Please take the time to read this wonderful work and notice how the student writer, Martha, highlights important players in the Civil Rights movement, Pullman Porters, who, claims Martha, did as much to advance civil rights for African Americans as did the more well known activists Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Please take note of how Martha weaves in quotations and paraphrases and citations from her sources, and take a look at her excellent Works Cited.

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Also, note how Martha has a crystal clear thesis, claiming that the Pullman Porters’ legacy deserves our attention and appreciation for all they endured and overcame in the struggle to improve the lives of African Americans from the time when slavery ended and the Civil Rights movement began.

You might think of this kind of essay as an “Unsung Heroes” argument, as it shines a light on a group of people whose impact has been overlooked or forgotten. Let me stress this idea of the unsung hero, as it can give you a true sense of purpose in your research, analysis, and focus. A student interested in computer technology might want to write about someone well known such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but I want students to ask, “To whom does Bill Gates owe a debt?” If you really want to explore the legacy of modern computing, then go deep into your research and uncover the unsung heroes who paved the way for others in this field, someone like Great Britain’s Alan Turing. If you saw the film or read the book, The Imitation Game, then you learned about Turing, whom many consider the father of modern computing. It was his innovations that decoded the Nazi’s Enigma machine during World War II, saving millions of lives from planned attacks by the Nazis. Sadly, Turing was all but forgotten until the publication of the book and film (staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing) because he was prosecuted for “lewd acts” as a homosexual man during a time when such acts were illegal in England. He was chemically castrated and committed suicide while only in his forties. Recently, Queen Elizabeth posthumously exonerated Turing of any crimes, showing the power of the writer who dredged up this almost forgotten man from the dust of history to highlight his undeniable contributions to society and to science.

The Legacy of Pullman Porters.docx

Once you have read “the Legacy of Pullman Porters,” start thinking about your own essay topic. Follow your curiosity, your interests, your passions. I suggest you brain storm a list of possible subjects in the categories of historical people, eras,, events, or topics. Under “people,” my dream list includes Shakespeare (did he really write all those plays?), Jane Austen, Queen Victoria (what was it like to become queen of England at age 18, to preside over an empire of 1 billion souls, have 9 children, and reign for 61 years during a time of enormous innovations in science, industry, and politics?), Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederick Douglass, the former slave who–along with Harriet Tubman– escaped and became one of the greatest abolitionists to help end slavery in the U.S., and some founders of the film industry, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (I’m a huge film buff). Under “era,” I’d list the Renaissance, World War 1, the Great Depression. Under “”event” I’d list the attack on Pearl Harbor (which I visited 10 years ago and was profoundly moved to learn more about). Under “Topic,” I’d list Film History, the first Women’s Rights movement (it’s only been 100 years that American women have had the hard-fought for right to vote, and more.

My topics might sound really old to you younger students because I’m listing subjects that occurred before I was born. I want you to do the same–learn about a time and place before you were born. Every lesson we need to learn is in History. Another nice thinkg about a historical legacy essay is that there will be tons of research on your topic. We are looking for secondary sources here, which are sources that examine and analyze your topic. If you want to write about a famous writer, like William Falkner, then you would research sources such as biographies and histories and literary analysis of his works, such as I did when I wrote my Master’s Thesis on Jane Austen (it was 85 pages with 7 pages of Works Cited, and I titled it: “Troubled Doubleness in Jane Austen’s Emma and in Its Modern Film Retellings.”) I hauled a cartload of books out of my college library all about Jane Austen in her time in history and the struggles of women to find equal footing in an era when they were not permitted to earn a living. These themes show up in her fiction, so understanding Austen’s socio-political world helps us understand her novels more deeply.

One approach to this assignment is to use what’s called a “rebuttal style” of argument, as it lays out the negative and positive aspects of your subject and then evaluates which carries more weight. For example, in a rebuttal-style argument written by historian Stephen Ambrose for Smithsonian magazine called, “Flawed Founders: To What Extent Does the Founding Fathers Owning Slaves Diminish Their Reputation?” Ambrose contrasts the flaws of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington against their contributions to society, and makes the thesis claim that their legacy deserves recognition, as–after the struggles of the Civil War to end slavery and Civil Rights to end segregation–they contributed to the eventual freedom and equality for all U.S. citizens.

You will notice that Martha’s essay about “The Legacy of Pullman Porters,” uses the rebuttal style of argument. She describes all the hardships and degradation endured by the Pullman Porters, and then she highlights their contributions to civil rights, including creating the first black middle class and the first black workers’ union, providing college educations for their children, and galvanizing other rural African Americans to join the growing Civil Rights movement.

Try to find a topic with some controversy so that you get a chance to argue for or against its legacy. Was Ghandi really a good guy? Did Florence Nightingale make a lasting impact on the field of medicine, or were her contributions over-rated? What about that Napoleon Bonaparte character? I’m still trying to figure out if his legacy was ultimately good or bad for history, so I read every article I can get my hands on. He died in exile on a tiny island thousands of miles away from his native France, but his body was exhumed and brought to France to be memorialized. That’s a complex subject worth exploring, and I want you to find equally complex subjects.

You’re getting a version of a lecture I deliver to my face-to-face classes here, as I want to get students thinking about finding a subject they are passionate to learn more about. Love sports? You might want to focus on a specific sport, but you want to look at a historically significant figure in the sport, someone like Jackie Robinson, who changed not only the sport of baseball forever but also the social politics of his day. He was an ardent civil rights crusader. There’s an excellent documentary called Jackie Robinson, available in your library databases, “Films on Demand” and/or “Kanopy,” which I invite you to view. Documentaries are excellent sources for historical research.

You like music? Look for the musical innovators who influenced your favorite musical genres. There’s no rock without Muddy Waters. There’s no jazz without Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Who are the founders of rap and hip hop, and what political environment were they responding to in their music?

Space exploration? What about those Mercury and Apollo mission astronauts. And what about those unsung heroes–Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson–we learned about in the book and the film, Hidden Figures, about the genius, driven, African American mathematicians and engineers who helped put man in space? Last year marked the 50 year anniversary of the first moon landing, an accomplishment that came from the sweat and toil of thousands of people. Who are some of those unsung heroes?

Cars? How did Henry Ford change the world with his assembly line production of affordable automobiles? The man’s not without controversy as a notorious anti-Semite, but do we throw out the baby with the bath water? He’s attributed with creating the idea of weekends, as he recognized that taking care of his employees created loyalty and success. And cars needed roads and highways and petrol stations and traffic laws and more. So much of what we take for granted today was the result of someone coming along and changing the world forever.

Inventors? Students love to write about the “current wars” involving Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse. And there’s some controversy that Alexander Graham Bell stole another inventor’s research to win the patent for the telephone.

Explorers? What is the legacy of Christopher Columbus? Here’s a sample opening paragraph from a former student on that very topic:

Columbus: Idolized and Demonized

“On Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith,” said President Donald Trump in a 2017 proclamation, “whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions–even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity” (Proclamation 9656). In his proclamation, Trump praises the legendary Italian explorer, who in 1492, sailed the Atlantic and stumbled on the Americas, for his bravery and tenacity. The proclamation, while appealing to Italian culture, is a huge oversimplification of the legendary oceanic journey west. Christopher Columbus is viewed far too often through a black and white lens. Some credit him with the discovery of the New World and praise him for his bravery, while others convict him of oppression and genocide. To omit either his accomplishments or his sins would be a disservice to the history of humanity. As tempting as it may be to condemn the explorer for the sake of political correctness, or try to create an idol out of a man by burying his ugliness in the shadow of the past, future generations deserve to know the whole truth of who Columbus really was.

[That’s a pretty nice opening paragraph–it starts with an intriguing quotation, then addresses the controversy of the subject, and then gets to a focused thesis claim–the guy was complex and we can’t ignore his impact despite his flaws. Now, take a look at the concluding paragraph of this 7 page, 7 source essay:]

In the end, opinions of Christopher Columbus deserve to be kept subjective. The celebration of Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day should be entirely up to the individual. However, in public education systems, students need to be told the full story of who this explorer really was. He was a bold, but seriously flawed man. He departed from Spain to bring the blessings of civilization and Christianity, but ultimately returned to rob the native people of their freedom and resources. He didn’t discover America, as there were people there before his arrival–he simply aided in connecting the eastern and western world. He should not be revered as a hero, but his role in the eventual founding of our country should not be omitted from our textbooks. History is full of men and women who some regard as idols, but every single one of them was imperfect and made mistakes–some more than others. Centuries of bloody warfare and oppression are the trails humankind has left to get where we are today, and rather than denounce western culture because of its ugly roots, we should be thankful that we currently live in a country that accepts people from all racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.

[And that’s a great conclusion, as it wraps up the discussion, touches upon the opening thesis claim, and leaves readers thinking about the ultimate impact of this complex figure. Here is a sample of some of the sources used in this essay:]

Works Cited

Byas, Steve. “The Libeling of Columbus Continues.” New American, vol. 31, no. 21, Nov. 2015, pp. 41-43, EBSCOhost,

Rogers, Claudia. “Christopher Who?” History Today, vol. 67, no. 8, Aug. 2017, pp. 38-49, EBSCOhost, proxy.


I’ll wrap up this assignment description with a final thought: Ask yourself what the world would be like if your subject had never come along. At the turn of this century, historians were musing about the most influential people of the last millennium (that’s the last 1,000 years), and they agreed that the greatest impact was made by Johannes Gutenberg, who, in the 1440s invented the printing press, making text and information available to the masses, creating media literacy, and profoundly changing the world forever.

So start your brainstorming and research today. If you have any doubts about yoru topic being appropriate, reach out to me. I have had students choose topics that weren’t historical (such as steroids in sports), so if you’re not sure about your topic, ask me and we can discuss. Good luck and enjoy the exploration!

Final note: There will be a separate assignment link for the “Draft of Essay 3: Historical Legacy,” which will be due on Nov. 30. The same draft will be submitted to the assignment link “Peer Review: Essay 3” and Peer Reviews. The final draft of Essay 3 will be due on Monday, Dec. 7 (There’s a historic date for you!) by midnight

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