Black history is American history, yet black history is still distressingly absent from many of America’s K-12 history classrooms. Even during Black History Month, some parents have to struggle to get their children’s schools to include the history of African Americans. During the rest of the year the picture is even bleaker. And studies have shown that slavery—a key part of American history—is especially likely to be neglected altogether or taught poorly.
Of course there are many school systems, schools, and teachers who do a fine job with African American history. But for those who don’t, or for teachers who wonder where to start—and most of all for teachers interested in western Maryland—this blog post will lay out some ideas. I’m going to focus on slavery, both because that’s my area of research, and because slavery is an especially difficult (and important) part of history to teach.
Why Is Slavery Such a Difficult Topic?
When we think about slavery as a “difficult” subject, we mean several different things. Education professors Jeremy Stoddard, Alan S. Marcus, and David Hicks propose a framework for what makes a subject “difficult history” in their 2017 book, Teaching Difficult History through Film:
(1) A difficult subject is a “traumatic and affectively difficult” one that includes “violence, injustice, or other powerful instances largely viewed as a taboo or ones that could inflict trauma.” Slavery meets this criterion. Moreover, in our divided society, slavery is differently difficult for African Americans and whites to talk about (Stoddard et al., 4-5).
(2) A difficult subject is also “marginalized and [potentially] challenges the official curriculum.” Like other aspects of black history, slavery was left out of a curriculum that was “traditionally … used to reinforce a national narrative and maintain the status quo” (Stoddard et al., 6-7).
Once we recognize these difficulties, we’re better equipped for our task.
Preparing to Teach about Slavery
Because of these overarching difficulties, teachers may need extra tools to prepare ourselves to teach about slavery. These include not only becoming more familiar with the subject content, but also—especially for white teachers—updating one’s racial awareness and anti-racism skills. Some links to anti-racist teaching materials are here and here; many more are available online. Wherever you are on your anti-racism journey, I encourage you to do further work. White people, I mean you! This is our work to do. The tools are out there, and it’s not the job of our African American colleagues and friends to teach us about this.
Pay attention, also, to best practices that are specific to teaching about slavery. Role-playing, for example, is usually not an appropriate pedagogy for this subject. White teachers need to respect the pain this subject carries for their African American students, and this means they must not ask those students to represent the enslaved. Language is important too. The readings suggested in this post address all these issues.
Curricular Resources for Teaching Slavery
Once you’re ready to dive into the subject matter, an excellent place to start is the book Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, ed. Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lyerly (U. Wisconsin Press, 2016). I especially recommend the foreword by the late Ira Berlin, “The Short Course for Bringing Slavery into the Classroom in Ten Not-So-Easy Pieces” (most of this foreword, though not all of it, is available via Amazon’s free preview). I also particularly recommend Steven Thurston Oliver’s chapter, “Dealing with Things as They Are,” which is less specific to slavery but strong on building trust in the classroom. The whole book is worth reading, for both subject content and pedagogy, though you can select the topical chapters that best suit your curricular needs.
I’ve already mentioned, above, the book Teaching Difficult History through Film, ed. Stoddard, et al. (NY: Routledge, 2017). In addition to good discussions of how to approach difficult history in general, this book includes two chapters specifically on teaching about slavery through film.
Many teachers will be familiar with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Learning for Justice project (formerly called Teaching Tolerance), which provides free, web-based curricular resources on many topics, including more than 150 units on topics related to slavery. They can be filtered by grade level and themes.
Similarly, the Zinn Education Project offers free, web-based lessons on slavery among other topics. They can be filtered by grade level and time period, and a few are available in Spanish.
Beyond Tubman and Douglass: Voices of Western Maryland
Every child should learn about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, especially here in their home state of Maryland. But there are so many other African American stories and heroes, including people who triumphed over slavery in western Maryland. Here are five individuals from Washington and Frederick Counties who have left us their stories in their own words:
James W.C. Pennington: Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Jim Pembroke was brought to Washington County as a small child and grew up on Rockland plantation, near where Rockland Woods Elementary School stands today (about five miles south of Hagerstown). At age 19, he escaped from slavery, eventually becoming a famous abolitionist. His autobiography describes how enslaved people lived in western Maryland, as well as his eventful escape. It’s available free online or can be purchased inexpensively in book format.
Hilary and Christina Watson: A married couple, the Watsons had to live apart because of slavery. During the Battle of Antietam in 1862, wife Christina was enslaved in the town of Sharpsburg, while husband Hilary was enslaved on a farm nearby. They were both interviewed in 1913 about their experiences during the battle, for the book Battleground Adventures, although Christina’s memories were published anonymously. Their short narratives (Chapters XI and XII in the book ) add seldom-heard perspectives to this familiar story.
Lewis Charlton was born into slavery near Buckeystown in Frederick County. As a child he suffered terrible physical and emotional hardship, which he wrote about in his short autobiography, published in two different versions. One is available online and the other can be purchased in book format. This text is full of teaching potential, especially for local students. For Charlton’s later life, see this site.
George Jones was the only former slave from Frederick County interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project (known as the WPA Slave Narratives) during the Depression. Using a local example can be a good introduction to this important source material. Jones’s interview is on pp. 44-45 (images 47-48) at this link. The LOC website also includes additional material for contextualizing the interviews.
Rev. Thomas W. Henry: Born into slavery in St. Mary’s County, Henry was brought to Hagerstown as a youth and freed here. His autobiography recounts his long and adventurous career as an A.M.E. minister throughout Washington and Frederick Counties and the surrounding region. This important text is harder to follow than the others, but the published version, edited by Jean Libby, includes a timeline and excellent historical essay to assist readers.
Local Sites and Resources
As history teachers, we know the value of using the local region as a classroom. Here are some of the local resources for teaching about slavery right here in western Maryland—in some cases on the sites where our schools stand today.
The Underground Railroad in Hagerstown: This full-color brochure, based on up-to-date scholarship, tells individual stories and includes a walking tour of downtown Hagerstown locations connected with actual escapes. You can access it electronically or contact Visit Hagerstown for hard copies to use in the classroom or on a field trip.
Tolson’s Chapel, in Sharpsburg, was a church and school founded by free African Americans immediately after the Civil War. Most of its original members had been enslaved in the vicinity. Now restored as a National Historic Landmark, Tolson’s will be launching a series of online educational programs in the spring of 2021. Contact the organization if you’re interested other learning opportunities for your class.
Fountain Rock/St. James School: This was a major slave-worked site in Washington County when it was a plantation, and slavery continued here in the early days of the school’s history. Read a full history here, including individual stories and a key primary source.
AARCH (African American Resources Cultural and Heritage), Frederick’s black historical society, recently signed a partnership agreement with Frederick County Public Schools to develop inclusive curricular materials and offer teacher training.
The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, north of Frederick, offers a full range of educational opportunities, including programs and experiences related to slavery at the Furnace. This is a great field trip site.
Rose Hill Manor, in Frederick, was a slave-worked plantation and is closely linked to Governor Thomas Johnson. You can read about slavery at Rose Hill, including the enslavement of children there, at this link.
Monocacy National Battlefield/L’Hermitage, south of Frederick. Before it was a Civil War battlefield, this property was a slave-worked plantation with an unusual history. The National Park Service has excavated the slave quarters and researched the history of the families enslaved here. This is another site with great potential for field trips. The website has an education portal.
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