Black History Month

Most of you know that February is Black History Month.  My school is organizing a couple of activities to acknowlege the event.  We’ve set up a book discussion group that includes both teachers and students as well as a few outside speakers who will talk with small groups of students about various topics.  In addition, students and teachers have been asked to share their thoughts about issues that connect with black history during our school meetings.  I’ve been asked to get things started by sharing a few thoughts about the idea of Black History Month.  Feel free to comment.

I was asked to say a few words about Black History Month which will be observed through the month of February.  The setting aside of a month in recognition of the contributions of black Americans started in 1926  as "Negro History Week" under the direction of Dr. Carter G. Woodson.  I have to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable talking about black history.  As a historian I like to think of myself as someone interested in American history and more specifically the stories that reflect what all of us value about the history of this country.  We admire the people in our past who overcome great obstacles or defy the odds and those that stand firm for the values of freedom and equality.  The images that stand out in my own mind include black men fighting with George Washington’s army during the Revolution, the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner during the Civil War, the dignity of Frederick Douglass, the words of W.E.B. Dubois, the strength of King in a jail cell in Birmingham writing a justification for his civil disobedience on scraps of paper, and the courage of students your own age sitting defiantly at lunch counters across the South.  I find solace and hope in these and other images not because they are black, but because they reflect what makes this country what it is. 

At the same time I am all too aware that our historical memory is always selective and who determines that selection often depends on who controls the means through which our collective stories are shared.  When Negro History Week started little was known about the contributions of black Americans in large part because few people studied the subject, but more importantly because images of black Americans fighting in the American Revolution, Civil War, and even World War I did not fit into the history of a country that had decided by the 1920’s to legally segregate schools, buses, railroads, movie theaters and other public places along racial lines.  As a historian and as a citizen I consider myself lucky that I live at a time where I can read about those contributions as part of our American story.  Perhaps, as some have argued, a month set aside for black history is unnecessary.  I think the question is worth debating.  In the end, however, the recognition of Black History Month serves to remind us of our collective past and in turn hopefully strengthens our collective will as a nation to continue to push towards greater inclusiveness and equality for all.

Reenactors As Educators

Over at Civil War Power Tour Joshua Blair
recently commented on the "late unpleasantness" involving a reenactors
attempt at educating a group of students about the Civil War.  The
incident took place at historic Crossroads Village
in Mt. Morris, Michigan.  Apparently the reenactor handed out
enlistment papers to the students until he approached a black student
and commented that he would probably have been a slave.  I recall
commenting on this when the story broke.

I agree with Blair in his overall assessment of the situation:

They [reenactors] are not trained professionals or teachers. Therefore, the people that should be held responsible are the school’s
administrators. Did the administrators
not know that re-enactors are not professionals? If so, why did they believe a re-enactment
would be the most appropriate place for firsthand examination of American
history? There are many other places,
such as museums, that would have been more suitable for a field trip. The administrators should have evaluated the
sources of the presentation before deeming it appropriate for school children.

My only question is whether there is someone in the school
administration who would have been able to pick out any potential
problems with the presentation.  I am skeptical.  Reenactors can be a
useful source of information for a history class.  It is, however,
going to be difficult for the uninformed to be able to acknowledge who
the experts are in their craft and who simply has sufficient funds and
enough of an imagination to want to dress-up as a Civil War soldier.
I’ve run into many more of the latter, but I have to say that it is
quite impressive to watch and listen to someone who really does know
the history. 

When I say "know the history" I mean someone who is familiar with scholarly works
on the subject.  And there is no area more significant in this regard
than our understanding of the history of slavery.  To give you a sense
of how ill-informed this reenactor apparently was just think about the
fact that he could have given this student enlistment papers for a
U.S.C.T.  If he didn’t think this was appropriate, how about giving him
the role of a farmer.  Don’t most people know that there were free blacks in
the North before the war.  How about giving him the role of a fugitive
slave?  Even if there were relatively few in Michigan wouldn’t this have been more appropriate given the setting?  How many black students were in the group and would singling one student out have made for an unpleasant situation?  I don’t know. 

My guess is that this guy did not mean any harm and I agree that the outrage expressed after the incident was probably a bit over the top. 

Carl Schurz’s South

Today is the last day before the winter break and I definitely need it.  We start up again on January 8, which should give me enough time to get a few things done.   I have to write a short talk for the roundtable discussion at the AHA as well as complete the Crater manuscript.  In addition, I am preparing a chapter from the manuscript for possible inclusion in a very popular edited collection on Civil War campaigns.  The most important thing on my list is to spend time with my wife and family. 

Schurz Yesterday my AP classes examined Carl Schurz’s report on Savannah, Georgia that was originally written for Andrew Johnson and eventually published in the Boston Advertiser.  Schurz served in the Union army and was connected with the radical wing of the Republican Party.  In the months following the end of the war Schurz was asked by Johnson to report on conditions in the South.  While it can be argued that Schurz was predisposed to see the worst in the South, Johnson was also not ready to acknowledge conditions that would challenge his lenient stance on Reconstruction. 

Before reading the document the class talks about Schurz’s personal background, including immigration to America and his political stance both during and following the war.  The document is ideal for the classroom as it is clearly written and raises some of the important questions that the Federal government wrestled with as they debated how best to protect and advance civil rights for the newly freed slaves.  The most interesting section of the document is a short reference to the "veil question":

It is remarkable upon what trifling material this female wrath is feeding and growing fat.  In a certain district in South Carolina, the ladies were some time ago, and perhaps are now, dreadfully exercised about the veil question.  You  may ask me what the veil question is.  Formerly, under the old order of things, Negro women were not permitted to wear veils.  Now, under the new order of things, a great many are wearing veils.  This is an outrage which cannot be submitted to; the white ladies of the neighborhood agree in being indignant beyond measure.  Some of them declare whenever they meet a colored woman wearing a veil they will tear the veil from her face.  Others, mindful of the consequences which such an act of violence might draw after it, under this same new order of things, declare their resolve never to wear veils themselves as long as colored women wear veils.  This is the veil question, and this is the way it stands at present. [my emphasis]

This is an excellent example of gender intersecting with race.  As the class was reading through this section one of my male students asked if wearing a veil was a "sign of wealth and beauty."  I smiled and urged him to read on.  It was nice to see one of my male student pick up on this so quickly.  What did the Thirteenth Amendment mean to slaves and how did they express "this new order of things" during the postwar years?  Schurz also references a July 4 parade in the streets of Savannah that was organized by the city’s black population.  What I like about the veil issue is that it is subtle and yet so very important to the women who were able to express themselves through clothing.  This is something that my students take for granted.    Next time you teach Reconstruction give Carl Schurz a shot.

The Role Of The History Documentary In The Classroom

One of the readers of this blog recently asked about the role of documentaries in the classroom – specifically PBS’s video Reconstruction.  I wanted to say a few things about how I use history videos in the classroom, but first here is the reader’s question and comment:

Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?

I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s Reconstruction, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.

My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like "there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff."

I want to start by saying that I rarely use history videos in my class for the simple reason that most of them stink.  They are geared towards pure entertainment and contain very little content that is worth thinking critically about.  There are a few exceptions and one of them, as stated above, is PBS’s Reconstruction.  Second, in response to Coach Blackburn, if the teacher is superfluous in teaching the history lesson than it seems to me the class itself is unnecessary because a student can always watch the video at home. 

If I use a video I will typically show no more than 15 minutes; the main reason being that most of my students can only focus for about that long.  Videos do not create active learners; in fact there are plenty of studies that point to the ineffectiveness of this type of approach.  I try to break up my classes into segments.  The first 15 minutes are typically spent giving background to a specific event which is followed by some kind of document analysis and discussion.  If I use a segment of a video it is in connection with a specific lesson plan.  For instance, a few weeks ago I used part of Burns’s Civil War documentary on Lee’s decision to secede along with the statistics from a recent study on West Point graduates from the South who decided to stay with the Union.  The purpose here was to compare a popular version of the story with an analytical study. 

I think it is also important to realize that what we as teachers see as interesting and engaging may fall flat with students.  If a video is going to be used it is absolutely necessary to prepare students with some kind of guide – perhaps a series of questions.  The other issue is preparation.  What will the students have read to prepare them for this video?  This is a fairly sophisticated interpretation of Reconstruction from what I remember. 

As a final thought I repeat my earlier point in the day which is that since there is such an incredible amount of interesting primary source material that can be used in connection with Reconstruction it almost seems criminal to show an entire video.  Be creative, take chances, and rely on the students to think through the tough issues.   I am constantly surprised by the level of sophistication that is possible on the high school level.  Don’t waste opportunities to teach and engage your students.

Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction

Today my AP classes started Reconstruction.  I always enjoy teaching this section of U.S. History and given that we are using a text by Eric Foner, my students get the latest historiographical trends.  On the first day I try to present and engage my students in a discussion of the challenges that Reconstruction presents.  We examine the perspectives of the newly freed slaves, Republican Party, and white Southerners.  The first point I make is that the distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction is an artificial one used by historians to more easily carve up the past.  Well, perhaps that is to go too far, but my point is that the issues involved are in large part a continuation of trends from the war years.

Thomas Nast’s images are some of the most useful sources for the classroom.  For example, the image to the left is titled “And Not This Man (August 5, 1865) and can be used to examine the debate about civil rights for black Americans and especially those who fought for the United States.  I ask my students to think about the intention of the illustrator and the message that he hopes to communicate.  Without sharing the title of the image I ask the students to imagine the words spoken as this crippled veteran is presented to the nation.  Students are able to connect Nast’s early work with the goals of the Republican Party, especially during Military Reconstruction.

The nice thing about Nast’s work is that it can be used to track the progress of Reconstruction or  the commitment on the part of Republicans to continue the policies that led to important political inroads made by black Americans.  As many of you know some of the most committed Republicans grew weary of their ability to bring about change forcefully in the South.  Younger Republicans who had not lived through the turbulent decade of the 1850’s were more concerned about an expanding capitalist economy and Northerners generally gravitated to the allure of reunion and reconciliation.  All of this comes out in Nast’s later work.  Compare the dignified soldier in the first image with the conduct of black politicians in a reconstructed state.  Did portrayals of black politicians in the South make it easier for Republicans, that were at one time committed to social and political change, to abandon Reconstruction?

Part of the problem in teaching Reconstruction is that there is simply too much good material that can be used.  Let me know what you do.