Closer Readings Commentary

Black History Month and the Classroom

Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.—Frederick Douglass

For Black History Month 2014, EDSITEment offers a revised and updated version of our Guide to Teaching Resources.

The Guide is a comprehensive collection of EDSITEment's free NEH-supported websites and lessons on African American history and literature. These resources bridge the gap between the expanding academic scholarship of the black experience and the need for this history to be more widely taught at the K–12 level.

EDSITEment staff has also been working to help teachers meet the demands of the new Common Core ELA standards, particularly the central requirement of giving students practice with complex informational texts and academic vocabulary. And because one can read images, video, and film as a text, we’ve included these as well.

Mastering such texts and their academic vocabulary is not only rewarding in itself, it promises dividends for later academic and career success. With this in mind, we’ve come up with some suggestions about how teachers might use recent NEH-funded projects for all these purposes.

Here are some highlights from the new EDSITEment listing:

  • Scores of enslaved African Americans maintained Montpelier, the estate of our fourth president, James Madison. This short video hosted by the Foundation’s archaeological team reveals how the people who made this great estate run actually lived and worked. Students can witness history coming to light through the excavation of the slave quarters and the Madison household.
  • Students may not appreciate the diversity of opinion that obtained among nineteenth century free African Americans. A new lesson, contrasting the views of David Walker and John Day can help them see that black opinion was not monolithic. Walker, an abolitionist, argued in his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World that the principles of the Declaration of Independence justified resistance to slavery and emancipation. John Day, a Baptist missionary (and one of the founding fathers of the modern African nation of Liberia), maintained that free blacks could never expect to live on equal terms with whites in the United States and needed to found their own nation in Africa.
  • As you prepare to teach the Civil War, your students can learn more about how much a small group of devoted abolitionists accomplished against seemingly insurmountable odds. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the Grimké sisters fought for thirty years to end slavery in America. The entire PBS film The Abolitionists is now available as a streaming video on NEH’s Created Equal website. The site has a robust teaching section with questions for active viewing, background essays, lessons plans, and primary sources.
  • Students will be interested to know that the story of Solomon Northup as recounted in 12 Years a Slave was first filmed by the distinguished African America photojournalist Gordon Parks over 30 years ago as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. This important event in cultural history is recounted by Chad Williams in Humanities magazine with a ten-minute clip accessible on the NEH website. (The complete film is available through Amazon Instant Video.) Note: two lessons on the text of Solomon Northup memoir are coming soon to EDSITEment.
  • For targeted, primary-source research and analysis, introduce your class to a vast database of historic African American newspapers via Chronicling America. Currently, 42 different titles of newspapers covering the years 1865–1922 are available from the District of Columbia to Washington State. Students searching these sources will discover how events from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the First World War and the Great Migration were reported from diverse regional perspectives.
  • In the long civil rights struggle, the strategy of nonviolent protest was vividly demonstrated and effectively used by the Freedom Riders. These courageous, college-age men and women challenged segregation in the Deep South in the early sixties, pushing the Kennedy Administration to enforce the law prohibiting segregation in interstate travel. Your class can gain in-depth knowledge of this struggle through the award-winning documentary Freedom Riders now available online and accompanied by teaching resources as part of Created Equal.
  • Also included in Created Equal, The Loving Story tells the fascinating story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a quiet interracial Virginia couple who were arrested by state officials for the crime of living as man and wife. Two ACLU lawyers took their case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. The landmark ruling in their favor appealed to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and led to the overturning of miscegenation laws in fifteen states. It has been cited in our time as a precedent by advocates of same sex marriage.
  • The story of Eugene Allen, an African American man who worked as maître-d’ for eight presidents for over 30 years, focuses yet another lens on civil rights history. Watch the 20-minute video interview with Will Haywood, the journalist who was author of the book about Allen that inspired the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

For the full listing of resources, go to Guide to Black History Month Teaching Resources and NEH’s Created Equal.