Interrogating the Past

I’ve grown tired of the bitter debate over what our students know or don’t know about American history.  Yes, we want them to know when the Civil War took place, be able to identify key historical terms, people and places.  All too often these discussions function under the assumption that our parents and grandparents somehow knew more than our students today.  I have no idea where this assumption comes from, but I’ve not seen much evidence to support it; in fact, I would put my money on this generation knowing much more about a wider array of subjects than any previous generation.

We can cram them full of facts in our history classes like a sponge or we can emphasize that the content of our course is only as meaningful and significant as the questions posed beforehand.  Today in class I was reminded of just how important it is to teach our students how to ask questions.  This week we started looking at the introduction and evolution of slavery in British North America.  By the end of the less students will write their first thesis-driven essay on why slavery thrived particularly in the Southern colonies.  To that end we are looking at a wide selection of primary and secondary sources, including a short selection from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. […oh and have I said how much I love being back in the classroom?]

Today we examined a selection of slave runaway advertisements that you can find at the Colonial Williamsburg website.  They had a number of questions to answer in response to these documents, but the most important question is, What do you want to know?  What questions do these documents raise in your mind?  Here are two:

Apr. 5, 1770. Forty Shillings Reward. RUN away from the subscriber, in York County, about the 11th or 12th of November last, a very black Negro man named Ben, about 5 feet 6 inches high, 35 years old, spare made, by trade a carpenter, and understands something of the coopers business, his upper teeth rotten, he has many clothes, so it is impossible to describe them. He took with him sundry carpenters and coopers tools. I expect he will endeavour to pass for a freeman, as he can read tolerably well, and am doubtful of his obtaining a pass from some evil disposed person, and leave the colony. This is to desire all master of vessels, and others, from harbouring him; and I will give the above reward to any person that will deliver him to me, at Mr. James Shield’s, near Williamsburg.


Oct. 13, 1774. Run away from the Subscriber, last Friday, a likely Virginia born Negro Man called JOHNNY, about 22 Years of Age, five Feet eight Inches high, has a down Look, and Waiter. This Fellow formerly belonged to Armistead Lightfoot, Esq; deceased, and is remarkable for Cock-fighting, Card-playing, and many other Games. I suspect he will pass as a Freeman, and endeavour to get out of the Colony, as he can read and write. All Masters of Vessels are cautioned not to carry him off, at their Peril. I will give 40s. if taken within this Colony and brought home, besides what the Law allows, or £5 if taken in any other Colony.

Students asked a number of interesting questions, but one in particular stood out.  The student in question wondered about the listing of the skills of a cooper, carpenter as well as the ability to read and play the violin.  She acknowledged that on the one hand it might prove helpful in singling out a specific slave, but her question was whether it was difficult for the master to acknowledge at all.  In other words, did the master acknowledge any conflict between on the one hand owning another individual based on a belief in racial superiority and acknowledging the skills listed in the advertisements?  Didn’t the acknowledgment of these skills cause the master to question the very practice of slave ownership?

These are the moments I live for as a history teacher.  It reflects a genuine curiosity as well as a close reading of the document.   As teachers we need to encourage this kind of thinking and make room in our curriculum to allow students to explore their own questions.  I don’t know yet what I will do, but part of next week’s classes will be devoted to addressing this student’s question.  [yeah…this is the best job in the world.]

6 comments… add one
  • SF Walker Oct 29, 2012 @ 22:50

    Had I decided to go into teaching, I’d have lived for students like this intelligent young girl. She asked a VERY good question and opened up a whole new angle on the philosophical foundation of slavery.

  • Woodrowfan Oct 19, 2012 @ 15:55

    That is indeed a very good question. And I agree, those insights are one of the joys of teaching….

  • Brad Oct 19, 2012 @ 4:07

    I would be interested to know how the discussion develops regarding your student’s question.

    Would also be interested to know what other materials you are using in the classroom (guide to further reading :))

  • Rob Baker Oct 18, 2012 @ 15:55

    Sounds like a really engaged classroom. I have to make use of the “ewww” factor to get my class to respond.

  • KewHall Oct 18, 2012 @ 12:50

    It gives me tingles in my toes to read this! Oh the joys of teaching…

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2012 @ 13:29

      Nice to be able to post once again about what I am doing in the classroom. It’s a great way to connect with fellow history teachers.

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