Closer Readings Commentary

Exploring Informational Texts: African American Culture and History

In February, we offered an overview and a sampling of EDSITEment’s rich collection of resources for Black History Month. We pointed out that African American History could and should be taught throughout the year and integrated across the curriculum. We promised to have more to say about how to do this in future postings.

So, this week, we spotlight high-quality, reliable, user-friendly digital archives of informational texts on African American history, rich in both primary and secondary sources. These resources will provide your students with informational texts on hundreds of biographies, events, and issues from the earliest settlements to the present to supplement their history and literature textbooks.

With resources like these, students and teachers are assured of reliable, accurate, and up-to-date informational texts on the multitude of topics relating to slavery, emancipation, race, and the long road to equality under law. They will also be exposed to models of “evidence based” analysis, reflection, and research.

Going deeper into African American history: the view from the states

The NEH-supported U.S. State and Territorial Online Encyclopedias are rich digital repositories, filled with user-friendly articles waiting to be discovered by students.

Entries on the political, historical, cultural, literary, religious, scientific, and geographic aspects of each state are written for a general reader by scholarly experts and kept current by the editors. Any of these entries is a short informational text that could be used to teach the analytic reading skills mandated by the Core.

Let’s look at some good-to-go examples that can be used in classrooms nationwide:

Louisiana Encyclopedia features a lavish digital book, A Unique Slant of Light: A Bicentennial History of Louisiana Art, with a ravishing cover painting of A Creole in a Red Headdress. Students interested in race and ethnicity will be led to articles on creoles and creole literature.

The encyclopedia is especially rich in essays on the state’s unique architecture, art, literature, and music. Notable articles worth exploring are on Louisiana music, the novelist Ernest G. Gaines, and Hurricane Katrina.

The Virginia Encyclopedia has a robust African American history section, reflecting the fact that Virginia had the largest population of enslaved people of any state in the Confederacy and was long the political leader of the Southern states.

Here, one finds over 120 entries on topics from Africans, Virginias' first to Carter G. Woodson (the founder of “Black History”). The range of black thought in the 19th century is represented by entries on Martin R. Delany, abolitionist and one of the first black nationalists, to Booker T. Washington with his policy of “accommodation” at the end of the century.

The Virginia Encyclopedia covers many aspects of broader African American history from slave ships and the Middle Passage to the Great Migration to the career of Doug Wilder, the nation’s first black governor.

Another entry introduces us to Irene Morgan, who in 1944—eleven years before Rosa Parks—refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. NAACP lawyers took up her suit, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In the often overlooked landmark decision Morgan v. Virginia, the high court struck down the state law mandating Jim Crow practices on interstate buses.

When students ask why the Brown v. Board decision to desegregate public schools with “all deliberate speed” was not implemented as the U.S. Supreme Court mandated, point them in the direction of the article on Massive Resistance.

There they will learn about the policy adopted in 1956 by Virginia’s government to block the desegregation of public schools and how this policy served as an example for the states of the Lower South to resist desegregation’s efforts, thereby setting back these efforts by a decade or more and embittering many citizens.

Alabama was the stage for a number of the most significant events of the civil rights movement and home to many of the individuals who shaped its course. The Encyclopedia of Alabama feature Becoming Alabama arranges hundreds of relevant entries around people, places, and events at critical junctures of American history.

Through these articles students can investigate the lives of Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and many other less well known figures, as well as examine important “movement” cities such as Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, and dramatic events such as the Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, with over 250 entries on African American topics, covers the entire history of black people in the state from the earliest settlement to the present. Originally brought to Arkansas in large numbers as slave labor, people of African ancestry drove the state’s plantation economy until long after the Civil War. As a result, African Americans have exerted a profound influence upon all aspects of the state’s history and culture.

Students can learn about the details of the historic desegration of the Little Rock Central High School with its absorbing cast of characters: the Little Rock Nine, their mentor Daisy Lee Bates and her husband. There are also entries on the world famous writers from Maya Angelou to Richard Wright who were born in the state.

The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture has 142 entries on African Americans, including 57 on the civil rights movement.

Other state encyclopedias rich in African American history entries are Georgia, Texas, and West Virginia.

How would you use these with your students? Please let us know!