Each year February comes, and many teachers become anxious. Teaching black history can make people uncomfortable. Teachers do not want their white students to feel guilty over the injustices of the past, and they do not want their black students to feel angry or upset? So, how do you effectively cover the true history of race relations in the United States? Here are some tips to help answer these questions.
Race relations are a huge part of United States history
The truth is race relations are a huge part of our Nation’s history. To ignore it in school, is setting children up for awkward social interactions in the future. Race relations in our country have come a very long way, by whites and blacks working together. If you truly study the abolitionist movement in the United States you know that slavery was abolished because of white and black abolitionists working together. White abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison truly brought about change in this country. Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth brought a very important layer to the Abolitionist movement because they themselves had been slaves, and could speak about horrors many in the north had never imagined. The abolitionist movement was a white and black movement in the northern part of the United States.
Focus on those who were on the right side of history
In the southern part of the United States the abolitionist movement is not as well documented. This is because
southern abolitionists risked their lives to bring an end to slavery. White abolitionists living in the south, could not speak publicly. Most slaves were abolitionists, but once again they could not speak publicly about it. Slaves risked beatings, death, and permanent separation from family if they spoke openly against slavery. We know that abolitionists existed in the south due to the large number of slaves who were able to escape via the Underground Railroad. This happened because of white and black abolitionists working together. We also have many negro spirituals which have survived the test of time, and still include coded messages of escape. A great example of this is the famous spiritual “Wade in the Water” which taught slaves to hide from tracking dogs by using rivers, lakes and streams. The Abolitionist movement is something that all students can and should be proud of. This is a great place to begin with your class.
Once slavery ended, life was still very difficult for the freemen. Once again, many teachers become fearful of teaching about teaching the reconstruction period, and beyond. Things only changed in our country, however, through blacks and whites working together. What made the Civil Rights movement successful were blacks and whites sitting at lunch counters together. Black and white freedom fighters died for the freedoms we take for granted today. This is a rich part of America’s history. To rush through it out of fear is an injustice for those who risked so much.
Celebrate the positives, and the multitude of accomplishments
My students study black history each year through my unit – Following the North Star. It’s a thorough unit which focuses on the importance of working together to overcome adversity and create change. At the end of our black history studies, my class completes a freedom quilt (actually we usually create two – depending on the size of my class). I give each student a 12” by 12” piece of scrapbooking paper, along with directions to take home to their families. Each child creates a square of our classroom freedom quilt. They may represent a powerful person in African American history, or a theme from African American history. I let families know that this project should be a family activity – this allows families to tell one another stories and engage about this important part in our nation’s history. I created a free lesson for this, which includes the directions and grading rubric. Feel free to download it – I hope that it is something that you will be able to use in your classroom as well. If you need inspiration on the many heroes of black history, view this post – The Hidden Figures of Black History.
For more great ideas on teaching black history, check out these great blogs below.