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Planning a Better Way to Teach Hard History

To Understand Slavery, Listen to the Descendants

What equality does one have if American and world history are taught as a white history with sidebars for the full spectrum of humanity? The Founding Fathers commanded and watched the work of our ancestors, writing histories that omitted their accomplishments. The lives of the enslaved people who actually built our country and produced its initial resources are left unacknowledged — one does not give credit to a mule for pulling the plow.

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In 1820, as part of a decades long dialog, James Madison penned a letter to his friend, General Marquis de Lafayette, in which he bemoaned “the dreadful fruitfulness of the original sin of the African trade.” In his retirement years, the former President understood full well that no other issue so threatened the success of the American experiment to try to “create a more perfect union” as did slavery. Some 200 years later, that legacy remains the “damned spot” that still most disrupts our “domestic tranquility”. As Lady Macbeth herself knew, there remains “the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten…”.

In decades past, the history of slavery in America was taught with an echo of fairy tale: once upon a time the United States embraced slavery, which led to myriad political problems, which resulted in a bloody civil war in which well over 600,000 lives were lost. The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln persevered through this moral, constitutional and political crisis, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and lived just long enough to oversee the creation of the 13th Amendment, which finally abolished slavery in America. In 1868, in the aftermath of his martyrdom, a contrite nation went on to pass the 14th Amendment, which defined and extended national citizenship to the former slaves, and then went further in 1870 with the passage of the 15thAmendment, granting African American men the right to vote, and which further proclaimed that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Including the Perspective of Descendants

Unfortunately, tired of decades of political conflict and four years of war, America too often ignored the issues resulting from this legacy of slavery. What followed were congratulations all around, and 150 years of parades and celebrations, yet the “damned spot” remains. In general, white Americans have perceived slavery as an unfortunate, but historical fact that is part of the past, with little or no relation to their own lives. African Americans tend to view the subject much more personally.

Recognizing that this discord still threatens our “domestic tranquility”, over a long weekend in February 2018, leading academics, public historians, descendant community advocates, and others convened at James Madison’s Montpelier to participate in “The National Summit on Teaching Slavery.” Among those that participated were leading scholars, such as Ohio State University’s Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Harvard University’s Evelyn Higginbotham, and William & Mary’s Michael Blakey. Also included were leaders from public institutions such as The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Mount Vernon, Monticello and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Others represented descendant communities from sites across the South, including descendants of people enslaved at Montpelier.

In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, Montpelier hosted this Summit to begin the development of new guidelines on how historic sites and cultural institutions can best interpret and teach slavery by engaging descendant communities. The goal was to create a “rubric”, defined as a guide for communicating expectations for a project, and a tool to provide focused feedback on works in progress. Expectations are evaluated by listing a criterion, and by describing levels of quality, from excellent to poor. Although a rubric can be used to assess student work, it can also be used to teach and evaluate, with the potential to help develop understanding, and provide a means and framework to judge the quality of a given project. With thoughtful design, a rubric can be a useful means to help clarify standards for a quality educational experience, and to guide ongoing feedback about progress toward those standards.

“The weekend was an important step in our field,” said Michael Blakey, National Endowment for the Humanities professor of anthropology at The College of William & Mary, who is also a member of Montpelier’s descendant community. “Including descendants in discussions of slavery interpretation doesn’t make them less scientific. In fact, it offers news perspectives, more accountability and a path forward for assuring that African-American history is not a sidebar of American history.”

Professor Jeffries noted that “In the classroom students are learning a sanitized version of slavery, free of the humanization of the enslaved. Students aren’t taught about who was responsible for maintaining the institution of slavery and often don’t recognize that slavery was a leading cause of the Civil War.” Reflecting on Montpelier’s award winning, permanent exhibition, The Mere Distinction of Colour, Jeffries noted that “Montpelier gets it,” and speaking of his fellow summit participants, Jeffries went on to say that “Everyone in that room just wants the truth to be told.”

The conversation about how best to design the rubric continued all through 2018, but finally, in November, this guide for helping evaluate methods and create a consistent criterion for teaching this most difficult of all historical subjects was unveiled and released to the public.

Scenes from “The National Summit on Teaching Slavery” held at Montpelier in February, 2018.