|Author:||Jonece Starr Dunigan|
|Date of publication:||3/1/2020 0:00|
|Source URL:||View Source|
Learning our country’s history is about more than reading a dusty book detailing the who, what, and when in America’s story. History is about exploring identity – who are we? Who are we becoming? What have we been through? What have we overcome?
Learning from a diversity of voices and experiences throughout history can play a central role in understanding that identity. But the presence (or lack) of black history can shape a student’s experience in the classroom, according to University of Missouri professor LaGarrett King, who researches how black history is taught and interpreted in schools and in society.
Children need to see the humanity in each other, King said. Their history classes can forge the lens through which students see classmates who don’t look like them.
“If you understand someone who’s ‘other’ from you from history, it makes you kind of look at them a certain way in the present,” he said. “Are they going to think about non-white people as less than because the history curriculum tells them that non-white people were less than? That they were not that important to American democracy? That only white people, or particularly white men, are the most important people in history?”
Teaching Alabama’s black history
Nationwide, historians, educators and journalists are demanding that African American history no longer be segregated into Black History Month or glossed over in lessons about the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, these critics say the contributions, skills, inventions and resilience of black Americans should be integrated throughout the timeline of American history.
Alabama is abundant with opportunities to spotlight these historical roles due to its proximity to black history: Montgomery alone had more slave depots than churches at the dawn of the Civil War in 1861. Many men and women helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he rose to national prominence on Alabama soil. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was the precursor of the national Black Panther Party.
Teaching Alabama’s black history with depth and woven throughout a history course depends heavily on teacher knowledge and how individual educators interpret the state’s Social Studies Course of Study standards, which tells teachers the bare minimum students have to learn in each grade. The decade-old standards have received praise for including black history throughout kindergarten through 12th grade, but need improvement when it comes to teaching slavery. Because social studies isn’t tested by the state as rigorously as math and reading, history is more likely to be placed on the back burner, leading to a decrease in accountability.
Nettie Carson-Mullins visits school districts as a social studies education specialist for the Alabama State Department of Education. She says there are districts in predominantly black areas in the state, such as Birmingham and Selma, who have been teaching black history in depth and throughout American history. But she said, “there are many places in Alabama that don’t teach black history beyond the standards.” Carson-Mullins couldn’t identify those areas because the state doesn’t keep or report this kind of data.
The Alabama State Department of Education has staff members like Carson-Mullins who travel to school districts to provide professional development on meeting the curriculum standards. But whether an educator chooses to teach black history or weave it into their curriculum in depth is up to the individual teacher and district.
“We don’t tell the school districts what to do. We don’t have a gavel in our hand hollering at them. All of them are autonomous structures,” Carson-Mullins said. “A lot of (the districts) have elected officials and when you have elected officials, the people in the area decide what is to be taught.”
With historical documents and books scattered in front of them, Central High School students are helping complete the narrative of Alabama’s history by investigating and archiving Tuscaloosa’s black history. With the guidance of University of Alabama Professor John Giggie and graduate student Margaret Lawson, they were trained to become their own historians in an elective course titled “The History of Us.”
The teens are using their skills to investigate the 11 black men who were murdered in Tuscaloosa County at a time when an epidemic of racial terror lynchings plagued the state between 1884 and 1933. While the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery erected a historical marker in 2017 recognizing eight of the victims, the students want to uncover the stories of their lives beyond the details of their deaths.
Central High School junior Brandon Walton is around the same age Cicero Cage when he was lynched in 1919. A well-known white girl accused 17-year-old Cage of pulling her off her horse and riding off with the animal. Those allegations — theft and a black male physically touching young white female — angered white residents. A white mob kidnapped Cage and hung him.
Cage’s father, Sam, found his body with his throat cut to pieces.
It’s up to Walton to put together the fragments of Cage’s story. He and his 17 classmates have scavenged through the files at W.S. Hoole Special Collections on UA’s campus to hunt down any clues that could humanize the victims. They are trying to figure out where their victims worked, who they married, the names of the children. Through census research, Walton found out Cage was one of five siblings.
By the end of the school year, the students will memorialize the victims’ lives through a digital project which will be paired with photo essays of black Tuscaloosans who opposed lynching. By archiving black experiences, voices and stories of resiliency, Walton and his classmates are playing a role in making sure all voices are heard in history.
“The word African American has the word American in it. So the history we are being taught right now is not complete,” Walton said.
According to the course of study, high school sophomores and juniors are required to take U.S. history, which is split between two time periods. Sophomores study the history that occurred before the industrial revolution and juniors focus on the time after the industrial revolution.
Lynching isn’t explicitly mentioned in the social studies standards in 10th grade. But an educator can — if they choose to — incorporate it into their lesson when they reach standard No. 15, which focuses on the emergence and impact of Jim Crow during the Reconstruction.
Walton said he didn’t know what lynching was before he enrolled in the “History of Us” class. So he researched the definition on his own and immediately signed up for the course.
“I said, ‘This class is going to be interesting,” he said. “I saw this as an opportunity to learn about my culture and my history.”
Interviews with college and post-secondary level history students across state have illustrated the need to teach Alabama’s black history with depth. The “History of Us” class is a high-school version of a course offered by Giggie to college students at UA. Over the years, Giggie has heard from his students who wish they’d learned this history earlier. So, he coproduced the class along with UA education graduate Margaret Lawson to meet that need.
“We just see through our own experience that, more often than not, black history is not being incorporated in U.S. history in a way that students find engaging, meaningful and that prepares them for when they go off to college or when they go off to their careers to talk about these issues with their communities,” Lawson said.
In order to do that, the state has to reckon with the way it portrayed itself in the past.
Romanticizing the South
Jermelle Matthews was baptized in black history while growing up deep in Black Belt in Perry County. Not only did she learn black history beyond King and Rosa Parks, she also grew up in an African Methodist Episcopal Church – a denomination that credits its roots to black liberation. Matthews said growing up in this oasis of black knowledge led her to seek more information.
She received a culture shock when she arrived at Auburn University. Black history was no longer a subject that saturated the ecosystem of her educational career. It was separated into different courses, she said.
Matthews now tours the state to help teachers implement a free digital course called “306: African American History” as the Alabama schools manager for an education tech company known as EVERFI. The supplemental course allows students to evaluate how the contributions of African Americans have impacted society throughout history. It also names some of the unsung contributors of history such as Bayard Rustin, the gay activist who taught King MLK about the power of nonviolent protests. He was also the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King made his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. The course is for students taking U.S. history in 10th and 11th grades and English Language Arts classes in seventh and eighth grade.
EVERFI made an intense effort to inform all Alabama schools about this course. NBA Hall-of-Famer and Alabama native Charles Barkley sent a letter expressing his support for 306 to all high school and middle school principles. The company then went out and met with school districts’ history directors before meeting history teachers who were interested in implementing the course.
Of the 820 Alabama middle and high schools who are eligible to participate in the EVERFI course, 12 percent of them have implemented the course since its release three years ago. More of the state’s predominantly black middle and high schools are participating in the program than in the state’s majority white middle and high schools. However, there multiple digital resources a district can use to teach black history.
As Matthews helps teachers implement the course into their classrooms, she sees a need to challenge the rosy-lensed view of South – a region known for its southern hospitality and where saying “no, ma’am, yes, ma’am” is a golden rule. These anecdotes conceal the racial tension that exists in how schools teach Alabama’s history.
The romanticized depiction of Alabama can be found in past history textbooks. The 1957 textbook “Alabama History for Schools,” was highlighted in a Washington Post story for painting enslavers in a saintly light which continued the narrative that slavery wasn’t that bad.
The text’s slavery chapter touts that “slaves were better off than free laborers” and that slavery was the “earliest form of social security.” The book brags that while the enslaved “was badly treated as a rule in the foreign slave trade, he was generally very well treated very well by Alabama farmers.” The book was used for ninth grade Alabama history classes throughout the 50s and 60s.
Romanticizing the South is a concern historians have pointed out before, especially in popular works portraying the Antebellum south, such as “Gone With the Wind.” The 1939 movie has received multiple criticisms for portraying the enslaved as happy with their oppression, which was one of the ways slavery was justified.
“A lot of those underlying racial issues and racial tension kind of gets glossed over because we have romanticized what the South is, especially after the antebellum era,” Matthews said. “We tend to couple these monumental moments in history and we just put it all together. So think of (Martin Luther) King. That’s all (they learn) of Jim Crow. That’s all (they learn) of Civil Rights. That’s everything taught through this one man.”
The results of reversing the trend inspires students to become participatory citizens. According to pre- and post-class surveys conducted by EVERFI, 83% of the estimated 8,700 Alabama students who took the course said they are more likely to vote and 82% said they are not afraid to stand up for what is right. Matthews believes allowing students to see what African Americans have endured and their contributions throughout history inspires civic engagement.
It was this version of history that diluted Chelisa Ford’s black history education. Years before she started teaching ninth grade world history at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, she was a student at a predominantly-white high school in northeast Alabama where her history teacher once told her: “’Well, you know, blacks sold other blacks into slavery.’”
“He said it almost in a justified way,’” Ford said.
As a black student herself, black history was mostly absent during her schooling. She barely remembers any assignments about black individuals. Most, if not all, of her black history lessons came from church.
Attending the historically black Alabama State University in Montgomery changed all of that for her. It’s where she learned how to access slave schedules and about West African griots who have been preserving their community’s history, oral traditions and genealogy since the 13th century.
Although the standards for ninth grade world history doesn’t explicitly mentions griots, Ford says the information slips out of her while teaching anyway. She has an appetite to seek new information for her class. She obtained a copy of the 1619 Project through the Southern Poverty Law Center and is seeking different ways to incorporate series in her own curriculum.