From Civil War to Civil Rights

The following announcement appeared yesterday on H-NET.  Here is a link to the pdf: http://www.nps.gov/ulsg/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=202422 This is a great opportunity for students and teachers to integrate the study of Civil War memory into their history classes as well as careful consideration of their own responsibilities as Americans to continue the work of those who came before.

A NATIONAL DIGITAL HISTORY PROJECT FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

The coming year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of president-elect Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC and the presidency of a nation on the eve of civil war.  Inspired by that anniversary, the National Park Service invites high schools classes to join in a national digital project on the broader theme of inaugurations – new beginnings.

The National Park Service invites students to create short digital narratives on one of three themes:

  • My area in 1861 – using maps, photos, illustrations, census data, telling incidents from local newspapers, and (if available) national parks materials – students will create a portrait of where they live as it was just before Lincoln set off to Washington.
  • A civil rights hero from my area one hundred years later, in 1961, — by seeking out and interviewing a veteran of the struggle for equal rights, or finding existing oral histories, and/or maps, photos, illustrations, census data, and local news stories and national parks materials, students will tell the story of someone in their area who brought about change in the 1960s.
  • The road ahead – students will define the changes they intend to inaugurate in their adult lives.

Narratives will be gathered from schools throughout the nation and placed on a special National Park Service website. Participating students, their communities, and a broad national parks audience of all ages will then be able to use the site as window into key moments in our national life, as they were experienced locally, and as a virtual memorial for the momentous journey upon which President Lincoln embarked 150 years ago.

This project was developed by Dr. Marc Aronson in cooperation with Charles Forcey of Historicus, Inc. In the fall of 2010, the project team will provide a kit on the three themes, primary source samples and suggests, as well as links to Common Core Standards. Materials will be submitted through online forms; technical and editorial support will be available all along the way. A suite of digital resources taken from the National Park Service and Library of Congress sources will be available for all participating schools.

Making Room For a Richer History

From Governor Robert McDonnell’s recent announcement:

This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians-free and enslaved; Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

One of the things that I strive to do in my classroom is to give my students a sense of the complexity of the past.  I want them to struggle with competing voices from the past as well as our continuing struggle as historians to make sense of it all.  One of the aspects of Gov. McDonnell’s recent speech that I truly appreciate is that it aligns his office, and the influence that accompanies it, with this worthy goal.  Over the next few years we need to figure out how to challenge the boundaries of our own personal narratives of the past.  If we claim to be serious students of the Civil War as well as educators then we need to find ways to bring these stories to the public and help to forge a richer collective past.

Here are two examples that I came across today in my reading.  The first is an 1856 editorial written by University of North Carolina Professor, Benjamin Hendrick:

Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a Southern sectional ism.  It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution.  Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory.  One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the ordinance of ’87’ by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed.  This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim.  Many of these great men were slaveholders; but they did not let self interest blind them to the evils of the system.

Hendrick reminds us that while the antebellum South was committed to maintaining a slave society there were voices that continued to reflect antislavery sentiment.

Today in the Boston Globe there is an excellent article on the history of slavery in New England:

As the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in 2011, with commemorations that reinforce the North/South divide, researchers are offering uncomfortable answers to that question, unearthing more and more of the hidden stories of New England slavery — its brutality, its staying power, and its silent presence in the very places that have become synonymous with freedom. With the markers of slavery forgotten even as they lurk beneath our feet — from graveyards to historic homes, from Lexington and Concord to the halls of Harvard University — historians say it is time to radically rewrite America’s slavery story to include its buried history in New England.

As a teacher, historian, and proud citizen of Virginia I consider the governor’s words to be our marching orders to ensure that the Sesquicentennial gets as close to the “definitive collective memory of this period” as possible.  Thank you, governor.

Entangled in Nonsense

Imagine my surprise yesterday when the headmaster of my school handed me an advanced copy of Kevin Weeks’s and Ann Dewitt’s new book, Entangled in Freedom.  Apparently, Mr. Weeks decided to send a copy to my school along with a letter claiming that I had “slandered my literary work without conducting a formal book review.”  You may remember my recent post in which I offer a few thoughts about the book’s description.  This was not meant as a formal review in any sense, though a number of people expressed their concern that I should have waited until I read the book.  What is interesting, however, is the nature of Mr. Weeks’s overall complaint against me.  In addition to the letter he included my school’s statement of its core values, which reflects a commitment to diversity.  Apparently, my comments about the book reflects my lack of understanding of diversity as seen in this particular story about black Confederates.  Even more interesting is the following accusation:

Does St. Anne’s – Belfield School concur with Mr. Levin that African-American history, regardless of how controversial, should be removed from historical museums and the voices of African-Americans, as mine, be silenced?

I simply have no idea how to respond to such an accusation.  No one is trying to silence anyone and this has nothing to do with a lack of commitment to diversity.  What it has to do with is pointing out history and historical fiction that is fundamentally flawed based on the historical record.  Now that I have a copy of the book I can take a closer look at the content of the story.  Last night I tried to sit down to read the first few pages and somehow I managed to finish the first ten pages.  It’s much worse than I thought.  I understand that historical fiction tends to play looser with the historical record and I understand that children’s books must operate on a simpler conceptual level, but this is ridiculous.  If I somehow find that I can make it through, I will give the book a formal review.

Finally, I still don’t understand why my school is being contacted about this issue.  As I recently stated, this site has no formal connection with the workplace.

“Students Should Feel Free To Criticize”

Today I received a student scholarship application from our local Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation.  They run an annual essay contest and award three $1,000 scholarships as well as an $8,000 award to the public school, private school, or homeschooled student who authors the essay that is judged to be the best in the state.  There is much that I like about the contest.  On the one hand the judges seek essays that are “well-written and thoroughly researched” and offer a “rigorous defense of a well-reasoned thesis.”  They even make it a point to advise students that it is permissible to criticize Lee and Jackson.  Perceptive students may inquire as to why such a point needs to be made at all.  Although the contest allows students the widest latitude in formulating a topic and thesis, the foundation does offer some suggestions:

  • General Lee’s or General Jackson’s heritage and their lives at war and at peace.
  • Lee’s Christian fervor or Jackson’s religious passion
  • Jackson’s enigmatic personality or Lee’s dedication to gentlemanly virtues
  • Lee as President of Washington College or possible changes in the course of the Civil War had Jackson not died so early.

There is a slight bit of tension between the insistence that students think broadly about the topic and feel free to “criticize” and the suggested subjects listed above.  They are more than suggested topics; rather, they include a number of implicit assumptions that are deeply rooted in our collective memory of these two individuals.

Adventures in American Studies (Part 2)

Today we returned to UVA’s Special Collections to introduce students to their individual documents/artifacts.  The students spent about 50 minutes exploring their documents and responding to a series of questions that will help them with further research.  They were able to take photographs using digital cameras and they will be required to make one additional trip to the archives at some point over the next few weeks.  I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure to watch them interact with the documents.  I had a chance to talk with each student and assist them in formulating questions.  There was an energy in the room and we couldn’t be happier that so many students were visibly excited about the exercise.  This is what teaching is all about and this is how you get kids excited about history.  I’ve got the best job in the world.  What follows are some of the questions to help students get started:

  • What do you see?  List as many small and large elements in the broadside or artifact as you can.
  • What are the key features of the broadside?  Are they printed text or images or a combination of both?
  • What words strike you as most important?  How does the text highlight the importance of that word or words?
  • What colors, if any, are used?
  • What kind of typeface/font is used?  Is the print different sizes in places?
  • Does it tell us anything about who created the document and what kind of emotions it tries to elicit or engender?
  • What is the size of the document?
  • What kind of technology was used to create the artifact?  How labor-intensive was the process behind the artifact’s creation?
  • What is going on in American history at the time of this text?
  • What is the immediate historical context of the document/artifact?
  • Does 20 years of history on either side alter your understanding of the document?
  • What was the expected audience for this piece?  Specific or General?  How can you tell?

The final product will be a website the features the document in question.  Students must decide how to present both the document as well as their interpretation.  These are the experiences that matter.  We need to move away from measuring success simply in terms of what they know about American history.  Our job must be to connect them to that past and to help students to see themselves as products of the past.

If you are a teacher who lives in a college/university town I urge you to reach our to the archival staff.  Most universities encourage their staffs to engage in this kind of outreach.  We can teach history or we can teach them how to do history.