Black History 365

Cross-post by Glenn Wiebe from his site, History Tech.


The beauty of studying history is that you can never learn it all. There’s always something new to discover. A fresh piece of evidence. Another interpretation. A person or event or idea that has always been there . . . just waiting to be uncovered.

Maybe it’s a small discovery that changes how you personally understand the world. This week I learned that Paul Revere was an amateur dentist. (And if you’re like me, there’s now an image in your head of Revere on a horse – “The cavities are coming! The cavities are coming!”)

Not earth-shattering. But still cool.

hiddenfigures2And then there are those people and events that are just a bit bigger and should change how we all see the world. The movie and book Hidden Figures are like that.

Seriously? How did that slip by?

African American women calculating aeronautical and astronomical math, helping push the United States into space? In the Jim Crow South? Now that’s cool. And powerful. And part of the American story. But up until the last few years, the story of people like Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson was relatively unknown and certainly not mentioned in any of the history classes I ever took.

Which brings us to February.

And Black History Month.

I’m always a bit conflicted about the idea. The concept of a month specifically set aside for the study of Black History started back in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” That particular week was chosen because it marked the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

In 1976, the federal government followed the lead of the Black United Students at Kent State and established the entire month as Black History Month. President Ford urged Americans, and especially teachers and schools, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The hope was that Black History Month would provide a very intentional time for all of us to remember together the struggles of African Americans to obtain the basic civil rights afforded to others, the challenges African Americans have faced for centuries, and the contributions of African Americans to who we are. But . . . the real hope was that the story of essential people, events, and places, routinely ignored, would be incorporated throughout the school year.

While speaking at the opening of the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture, President Obama highlighted the purpose of the museum and, at the same, articulated why the study of all parts of American history is so important:

By knowing this other story we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America, that African American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It is central to the American story.

We are large, Walt Whitman told us, containing multitudes. Full of contradictions.  That’s America.  That’s what makes us grow.  That’s what makes us extraordinary.  And as is true for America, so is true for African American experience.  We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America.  We’re America. And that’s what this museum explains — the fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture.  

Movies such as Hidden Figures, Selma, and Fences do a great job of creating a sense of a specific period of time, of overt racism and violence, the need for supporting the right to vote, the courage of everyday individuals, and of the thought process behind events. The message  remains – that the quest for equality and dignity in the United States was difficult and dangerous. And that the work of ordinary folks such as John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Amelia Boynton Robinson still isn’t finished.

But I’m still a bit conflicted.

Jose Vilson, teacher and activist, puts it pretty well in an article titled If You’re Teaching Black History This Way, Please Stop:

First, I’d like to acknowledge that, on the chance that you’re actually celebrating Black History Month, congrats. You haven’t let the Common Core madness deter you from celebrating culture, whether it’s your own or someone else’s.  The decorations will spring up. Common faces like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Benjamin Banneker, and Will Smith will border the walls of a few classrooms, and probably a few hallways. There might be a fact-a-day in the announcements, and one in 400 schools might have someone who knows the Black National Anthem.

But, has it ever occurred to you that, as well-intentioned as this might be, we ought to take the next step and celebrate Black history on March 1st as well?

Too many of us still use February to have kids memorize random black history facts and call it good. (We also seem to have a habit of doing the same thing with women’s history and Latino history and Asian American history and Native American history and . . . well, you get the idea.)

I’m conflicted because I know many of you are looking for great Black History month resources. And I have a list. But part of me is afraid that it will only get used between now and the end of the month.

Vilson shared a quote from one of his teaching colleagues, Mike Kaechele:

As a social studies teacher I really don’t like all of the special months and days. I try to teach the various viewpoints of history holistically. I will not be singling out blacks in February, just like we didn’t talk about terrorism on 9/11. We did spend three weeks on 9/11 and terrorism when it fit where we were as a class. We have talked about African Americans in the context of all of the wars and foreign policy that we have discussed. I feel comfortable not focusing on Black history in February because we do integrate it all year in context and we will spends weeks on the Civil Rights Movement starting in March.

So here’s the deal. Use the resources listed below the same way Mike does. Not just during February. Not out of order or context. Use some of the resources in March. Save some for April. Save some for . . . well, you get the idea.

The story told in the Smithsonian African American museum, President Obama said last fall,

reaffirms that all of us are America – that African American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.

Black history and women’s history and Latino history and Asian American history and Native American history and Dead White Guy history are all part of who we are. We’re all part of the story and we need to tell it better.

We’re clear about the rules? Okay.

Here’s the 2017 list:

Before you jump into this, read The Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching Black History, a handy article from Teaching Tolerance. (They also have a nice set of teaching kits you can order for free, including this one about children and teens marching in Birmingham, Alabama and this one about the Selma to Montgomery march.)

Then head to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and check out their Collection page – a no-brainer for primary sources. The Smithsonian has put together a ton of other useful stuff. There’s a wide variety of goodies – from artists to authors to musicians. They’ve also created an incredible African American Cultural Heritage Tour with images, audio, questions and quizzes.

And Smithsonian’s latest, their new Learning Lab, is another awesome site for finding, curating, and sharing primary sources.

EDSITEment always has great resources, no matter the topic. You’ll find tons of lessons, resources, and teaching materials arranged by historical period.

The Civil Rights Movement Veterans site has loads of primary sources and oral histories. If you’re looking for fiction and non-fiction books, it’s got an extensive bibliography.

The combined African American History Month site from the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

pays tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.

The National Archives has a huge list of Black History resources. Use this together with four great sites from the Library of Congress – The African American Mosaic, African American Odyssey, Civil Rights Exhibitions and Presentations and From Slavery to Civil Rights.

ArtsEdge has a very powerful set of resources documenting the African American experience through the arts.

PBS created a couple of really nice collections – Africans in America and online resources on 1800s. And an awesome video and site about the Freedom Riders.

I haven’t used a ton of the resources at BlackPast but it all looks useful. Find classroom resources as well as an extensive Black History Month materials list.

Larry Ferlazzo always has great lists of stuff and his African American list is no exception. (Be prepared to spend some time here!)

Every day during February, the New York Times will post at least one previously unpublished photograph online, illuminating stories that were never told and others that have been mostly forgotten. Seems like a perfect writing prompt, hook activity, conversation starter, primary source analysis activity.

CommonLit has some great text sets that are useful. So does Newsela here and here.

A collection of lesson plan sites:

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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