Are You Teaching Social Justice?

I came across the following post at Chris Wehner’s Blog4History site.  We’ve had our share of run-ins in the past, but Chris is a fellow APUS History teacher and somehow he managed to write a regimental history and teach at the same time.  That’s quite a feat.  Chris is a public school teacher and is worried about the influence of left wing ideologues shaping our history curriculum and influencing how our children think about themselves and their relationship to government.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this.

On the other hand, Wehner’s most recent post on the push to turn classrooms into labs for the teaching of social justice seems to me to be a case of serious hyperbole.  The US Social Forum sounds like a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in bringing about a certain kind of change to American politics, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea and as far as I am concerned it has no place in the classroom.  Wehner would have us believe, however, that this kind of agenda is infiltrating our public schools.  Now keep in mind that I am a private school teacher so he may be in a much better position to judge this program’s popularity among teachers.  In his post, Wehner claims the following:

This is called teaching for Social Justice and it is not about truth or honesty, it is about radicalism, indoctrination, and propaganda in our schools. And we wonder why our public schools are failing us? There is little learning going on and instead, lots of indoctrination.

They are teaching educators about radicalism and revolution, and they in turn will teach the children!

This is just more data that our educational system is being hijacked by a movement that seeks to do nothing more than fundamentally change this country into something it was never intended to be!

Now, perhaps I need to go back and browse the website more carefully, but where does it suggest that this conference is being marketed to history teachers or any teachers for that matter?  More importantly, how many school districts actually implement programs that fall in line with this agenda?  Wehner fails to provide any facts that would back up his claims.  One thing that is clear is that these conferences are marketed to America’s youth, but that should come as no surprise.  I suspect that I could just as easily find organizations on the conservative side that are engaged in exactly the same thing.  And I have no doubt that I can find accompanying texts for their programs that are equivalent to what William Ayers does in his book on the teaching of Social Justice.   In the end, however, I am still left wondering just how influential any of this is.  For example, how many history teachers actually implemented the curriculum outlined in the History Channel/Howard Zinn collaboration, “The People Speak”?  I’ve seen a few online clips of the show and concluded that it was a complete waste of time.  If the barbarians are actually at the gates than show it.

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What Happens When Your Monument is Hit By a Truck?

This is an interesting story out of Franklin County, Virginia.  Two years ago their Confederate monument, which was dedicated in 1910 was struck by an out-of-control driver and all but destroyed.  Local leaders raised the necessary funds to build a new monument and plan to dedicate it in August only this time around there is also a push to include a marker that acknowledges the Civil War experiences of African Americans.  Just what that experience involved seems to be a matter of some debate.  First, it is difficult to imagine that an additional marker would be on the table had the original statue not been destroyed.  I suspect that a re-dedication on public land at a time when these symbols have come under increased scrutiny is part of what is at issue here.

The community group responsible for this new marker includes Francis Amos, a doctor; Franklin County Circuit Court Judge William Alexander; members of the Jubal Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy; and several other black historians, educators and local leaders.  The marker/pillar would include the following:

In commemoration of the many contributions, service and sacrifices on the home front and on the battlefront by People of Color, enslaved and free, from Franklin County during the War Between the States. (1861-1865).

You couldn’t ask for a vaguer inscription.  In contrast to most Confederate soldier monuments, which clearly state why they fought, died, and sacrificed this marker commits to nothing and yet ensures that any narrative will be framed around a reference to the war that is commonly used by the UDC and other heritage organizations to distance slavery and emancipation from our collective memory of the war.  Florella Johnson, who is the president of the local chapter of the NAACP expressed concern that the additional marker was not enough, though the article does not say why.

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Nikki Haley’s Civil War Memory (when the SCV asks)

Update: The interviews were conducted by the Palmetto Patriots with all the candidates and are available on the organization’s website.  A wide range of issues were covered.  McMaster discusses the flag in Part 2 at 2:55.  Bauer comments on the flag in Part 2 at 4:50 after one of the interviewers admits that there is some crossover between the SCV and Palmetto Patriots.  Barrett is a member of an SCV camp and in Part 1 at 2:25 pledged to defend the Confederate flag against “cultural genocide.”  One of the interviewers also encouraged Barrett to resist calls to remove the statue of Ben Tillman from the statehouse.  There is nothing surprising in any of this.

This is a wonderful example of a behind-the scenes-look at the way in which Civil War/Confederate heritage continues to shape politics.  I’m not sure Nikki Haley, who recently won the Republican Gubernatorial Primary in South Carolina, knows anything about the American Civil War, but she is clearly being put through the ringer by an unknown group.  I suspect that the interviewers are with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but I can’t be sure.  Haley reduces the war to a matter of “tradition vs. change” and is clearly doing her best not to offend.  Around the 5 minute mark one of the interviewers demands to know Haley’s position on the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag and reminds her of their work to remove Governor Beasley for proposing to remove the flag from atop the statehouse.

I’m not sure if I am more upset about the complete lack of historical understanding by everyone in this video or that this is an issue that demands serious attention by our candidates for public office.

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Another Black Confederate Website

Black Confederate Soldiers has more of a professional look to it, but the information and commentary provided is as misleading as anything you will find online.  You will find all of the standard accounts on the “History Facts” page as if to assume that serious history involves a simple listing of facts without any attempt at analysis or confirmation.   The bibliography is nothing more than an assortment of neo-Confederate/Sons of Confederate Veterans propaganda that fails to draw any distinction between secondary and primary studies.  The authors of this site invite readers to share their own sources on the subject.

Interestingly, both Kevin Weeks and Ann DeWitt are African American.  DeWitt seems to be responsible for much, if not all, of the content of the website.  As in the case of Edward C. Smith I get the sense that we are looking at another example of wanting to acknowledge the presence and importance of African Americans in our collective memory.  And as I’ve said before, this is certainly understandable.  In this case, however, there is something very personal at stake for DeWitt:

Born and raised in the south, I was taught forgiveness. (Matthew 18:21-22).  During my research, I visited a 19th century church in Oxford, Georgia called “The Old Church.” Sitting in the front pew during a tour, I finally understood that one cannot completely understand the complexity of the American Civil War and its ties to slavery until there is complete forgiveness. The people I met on this journey gave an open reception and led me down the safest trails in obtaining the facts about Black Confederate Soldiers. For this, I am grateful.

Perhaps, Christian slaves forgave and picked up arms to fight for the little they acquired during their years on American soil. Not until we set aside our differences can we have the necessary dialog about everyone, regardless of color, family lineage, political, or military affiliation, who made tremendous sacrifice from the first shots fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the the final surrender of General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

I have no interest in critiquing what motivates Ms. DeWitt to explore American history and the history of race relations specifically.  That said, there is something very honest about the above passage and I certainly sympathize with the ways in which understanding history can help to bring about understanding and reconciliation.  Unfortunately, this site does little more than promote the same tired myths and moves us even further away from understanding how the war effected the master-slave relationship.

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Is This a Photograph of North Carolina Slaves?

I remember the disappointment on the faces of some of my students when I revealed that many of the images used by Ken Burns in his documentary to accompany his narrative about slavery were actually from the postwar period.  As horrified as we are by the harsh reality of slavery we still seek a connection with that past.  We want to understand the human dimension of this sad chapter of American history.  It’s no surprise that the release of an image purportedly of two young slave children from North Carolina would receive so much attention.  The photograph even comes with a bill of sale that is attributed to one of the two children.  New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document.

Representatives of the historical community were quick to offer their own assessment of the document’s significance:

Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said.  The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long.  “To me, it’s such a moving and astonishing picture,” he said.

Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery.  “I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick or choose,” said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. “This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young.”

I posted this story on my Facebook page and agreed with others that the image was probably from the postwar period.  Leonard Lanier offered the following comment after going back to the 1850 Slave Schedule:

I have my doubts over whether the slave bill of sale goes with the photograph. The 1850 Slave Schedule for Brunswick County, NC lists a “George W. Potter” as the owner of seven slaves, including two boys aged 16 and 14. The census also lists two adult male slaves aged 24 and 30. Considering the large sum paid Potter’s estate administrator in .1854, $1150, for “John” I think the bill of sale is for one of these older men. Such a high price reflects their value as able field hands. However, either man is clearly too old by 1860 to be the subject of the photograph.

It’s not conclusive, but it should lead to further questions.  Either way it is a fascinating photograph and a wonderful find.

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