Alternative School on Camp Douglas Grounds Causes Controversy

[Hat-tip to Bjorn Skaptason]

Here is an interesting story to start off the week.  Apparently, a group in Chicago wants to build an alternative school that includes a Civil War museum on the grounds of Camp Douglas.  If approved, the school would be housed in a former funeral home that was once owned by Ernest Griffin.  Before he died Griffin discovered that the funeral home was located on the grounds of the former prison and recruitment center and that one of his ancestors had served in the USCTs.

He set out to learn all he could about the Civil War, becoming an expert and amassing a grand memorabilia collection along the way before his death in 1995.  “It’s a fairly large collection, mostly genealogy,” according to Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for the Newberry Library.  Heirs Dawn Griffin O’Neal and husband Jim O’Neal donated Griffin’s collection to the museum this summer. It’s yet to be catalogued.  Griffin had gained infamy by flying a Confederate flag on his property — alongside flags of the United States, Africa and a P.O.W. flag.  In 1990, at a ceremony attended by Daley and then-Ald. Bobby Rush, the funeral director installed a Heritage Memorial Wall in his parking lot to honor those who died in the camp.  All that is donated. A property marker remains, however, noting this is the “site of enlistment of Private Charles H. Griffin, Jan. 5, 1864, Co. B. 29th Reg., T. U.S. Col, D Infantry USCT.”  Griffin’s grandfather served in Company B of the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, the first African-American Union Army division in the state of Virginia.

Organizers hope to utilize these assets to establish a program in cultural preservation.  I am not quite sure what to make of this.  Ignoring the local political issues and just thinking of the possibilities leaves me with a number of questions and very few answers.  How does a program in cultural preservation help this particular group of students?  Who staffs it?  Anyway, it does sound interesting and I will make sure to keep you posted.

The Skyping Classroom

Last Wednesday I spent a good 45 minutes Skyping with Modupe Labode’s public history class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The class is focused specifically on the Civil War and public history and includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students were required to read the first chapter of my Crater book, but we managed to address a number of topics. Beyond the book itself we talked about the challenges of interpreting race and slavery at historic sites as well as the role of social media/blogs in shaping historical knowledge and memory. The students were incredibly sharp and their questions reflected a close reading of the various books and articles required for the course. It was time well spent.

This week I will be working with Professor Greg Pfitzer’s students at Skidmore College. The class is the Civil War in American Memory and students are reading David Blight’s article “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South” in Ailce Fahs and Joan Waugh eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture along with a recent post I wrote about commemoration activities in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Students are required to respond on the post and I am going to make every effort to respond to every comment. Please feel free to share your thoughts through the week as well. As we did a couple of years ago, once the assignment is concluded we will debrief with a Skype conversation.

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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?]

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Yankee History Teachers Go South

In February 2011 a group of teachers, accompanied by Dr. John Stauffer of Harvard University, flew from Boston to Memphis, TN and from there traveled by bus through the South visiting sites of historic importance to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, seeking a better understanding of each period and of the relationship between them.

This video was filmed at a conference held in May, 2011 at Burlington High School in Massachusetts. You’ll see what looks like a science fair, but is actually a “lesson fair” where the participants shared lessons they created and taught after the trip. Each traveler also created a digital story responding to the prompt, “How has this trip shaped my understanding of my role as an educator?” These were shown at the conference and three teachers joined Dr. Stauffer for a panel discussion.

Phil Gay of Tufts University, who is a partner and advisory board member of Making Freedom, interviewed the teachers during the conference, and created this video to document the impact of the study tour.