12 Years A Slave Wins Best Picture

Check out Mary Niall Mitchell’s Common-place essay on the backstory of 12 Years.

As many of you now know, last night 12 Years A Slave won Oscars for Best Picture, Actress in a Supporting Role, and Adapted Screenplay. Congratulations to Steve McQueen, John Ridley, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the cast and crew for making this important movie.

“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup,” – Steve McQueen

“Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism…” – Eugene Genovese

There are plans to bring this movie to classrooms across the country. Stay tuned.

When Students From Boston Go South To Study Civil Rights

In a little over three weeks I will be heading out with roughly 35 students on a civil rights tour of the South. Our trip will take us from Atlanta, Georgia to Memphis, Tennessee. Along the way we will stop at some of the most important sites related to the civil rights struggle and talk with various participants, including a Freedom Rider who was on the bus that was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. My primary responsibility along the way will be to help students make connections with the Civil War and Reconstruction era through the interpretation of various public sites including monuments and buildings. It promises to be an enlightening and enjoyable trip for all involved and yet I have some concerns. Continue reading “When Students From Boston Go South To Study Civil Rights”

“A Ludicrous Tragedy or a Solemn Farce”

Today in my survey class we examined newspaper editorials from across the country in the wake of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. The goal of the lesson was to learn how to interpret newspapers and to get a sense of the extent of the sectional divide over Brown’s actions. Students tracked assessments of Brown that bridged North and South and ways in which they diverged. Even more interesting was watching them come to terms with the fact that not everyone in each region agreed on what Brown’s actions meant. Students struggled quite a bit with an editorial from Nashville, Tennessee. Continue reading ““A Ludicrous Tragedy or a Solemn Farce””

“Each Section Preserved White Supremacy Differently”

Aaron AstorSince I don’t use a textbook in my U.S. History survey I am always on the lookout for relatively short excerpts from secondary sources that help me to pinpoint a specific historical question or problem. I’ve said before that one of the more challenging topics to teach is the distinction between race and slavery in nineteenth-century America. For most of my students (Virginia and Massachusetts) the lack of slavery in the North by the late antebellum period makes it difficult for them to appreciate the extent that racism permeated the region. They tend to see racism and slavery as two sides of the same coin, which is reinforced by their limited understanding of chattel slavery in the South.

This excerpt from Aaron Astor’s, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri does a brilliant job of teasing out this important distinction. Wish I had come across it last week.

At the heart of Kentuckian and Missourian values was white supremacy, or more specifically, a belief that Western civilization was a product of characteristics unique to the white race and that all interracial relationships must protect the white race from subjugation or degradation by the black race. Failing to hold the line against attempts at racial equality would yield nothing less than complete reversion to barbarism, which whites believed inevitable wherever blacks lived without white authority. Most white northerners and southerners agreed with this racial order, but each section preserved white supremacy differently. Northerners simply excluded African Americans outright–states such as Indiana and Illinois legally banned black people from entering those states in 1860, and many other states placed onerous taxes on blacks who could not prove employment or property ownership–or failing that, segregated blacks and whites in all facets of social and economic life. White northerners protected white supremacy by monopolizing the property, power and labor force of the northern states. White southerners, living amid populations that often included large majorities of African Americans, embraced slavery as the natural system of racial and social control. Without slavery, white southerners feared, blacks would literally overrun and destroy white civilizations, re-creating either Haiti or Africa itself. (pp. 29-30)

I can’t help but think that this paragraph helps to frame – in so many ways –  the problem of race that our nation faced following the Civil War right down to the present day. This is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for some time and I am so glad I am finally getting around to it. Highly recommended.

Are We Coming to the End of Civil War Memory?

When I learned that an essay on teaching would be included in the Common-place project I immediately thought of my friend, Chris Lese, who teaches history at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Chris and I met at an OAH conference a few years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. We’ve exchanged ideas and on a few occasions I joined his class discussion via Skype. Chris’s efforts to introduce his students to the subject of Civil War memory as well as his use of digital tools and social media sit at the forefront of classroom innovation and creativity.  Continue reading “Are We Coming to the End of Civil War Memory?”