Resource spotlight: NEH and Black History Month

February 25th, 2013

Humanities Magazine, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has released a special edition issue in celebration of Black History Month that is full of great teaching resources about the long struggle for civil rights in America. In an introduction to the issue, David Skinner, the magazine’s editor, provides a sampler of NEH-supported projects on African American civil rights history that should be a wonderful resource to any teacher looking to get students interested in studying the subject. 

Skinner begins:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Rather memorably, the first truth he listed was “that all men are created equal.”

Many have said that it took the Civil War for Americans to make good on this truth, but not even the bloody destruction of an estimated 750,000 Americans could make a reality of what had once seemed, to a contemplative mind, self-evident. And the following decades showed that the suppression of freedom on racial grounds could take many forms besides slavery. So, for black Americans, the struggle for freedom and equality in law and in fact continued.

Today, more historians are looking at the full sweep of this history, stretching from the Founding era to the late twentieth century, and seeing many connections between abolition and desegregation, between Reconstruction and the Great Migration, between the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Taken together, they form a pattern not of occasional outbursts but a dialectic of related events, a tapestry of progress and regress, not a series of reform movements but one long movement culminating in “the movement.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the state humanities councils have funded many projects documenting, cataloging, discussing, digitizing, and teaching aspects of this important history.

After the losses of the Civil War, it is a particularly brutal lesson to absorb that emancipation did not set black Americans free. They were free from slavery, but they were not free of a thousand other impingements, legal and de facto, hobbling their course in life and their “pursuit of happiness.” The trials of Reconstruction were followed by the trials of Jim Crow. Lynchings and race riots were as much a part of African-American history as separate train compartments. And a century after emancipation, African Americans would still be fighting for the right to attend publicly funded universities, to marry whom they wanted, to travel on the same buses as white people, and to eat at the same lunch counters. . . .

Numerous papers projects supported by NEH enable scholars to explore the history of the struggle for emancipation and equality before the law. Along with the Frederick Douglass papers, NEH has supported work on the Booker T. Washington papers, the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., and papers projects focusing on black abolitionists and the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The early twentieth century was a terrible period for race relations in America as African Americans migrated from the South and received a particularly harsh welcome in northern cities that became the setting for numerous large-scale race riots. The NEH-supported and National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age tells the incredible story of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys, who were greeted by an angry mob when they moved to a white neighborhood in Detroit. As they and their friends defended their right to live where they chose, a neighbor was shot and killed. Dr. Sweet ended up on trial with Clarence Darrow as his defender. . . .

Books are read, and they are also taught, sometimes to teachers, as in NEH seminars andinstitutes for schoolteachers and college faculty, which afford educators the rare opportunity to study with some of America’s most distinguished scholars.

A program at Harvard University under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. has, in ten recent summers, welcomed college teachers to explore the “African-American Struggle for Freedom and Civil Rights.” Under the guidance of well-known faculty, such as NEH fellow Eric Foner, who has taught the program’s segment on Reconstruction, participants receive help developing syllabi for courses at their home institutions.

The Library Company of Philadelphia has on five occasions offered an NEH-funded seminar on the abolitionist movement, working with schoolteachers to emphasize primary documents in their own research as well as in the classroom. The abolitionist movement was born in Philadelphia and this seminar emphasizes the historical course from the Revolutionary era through increasing radicalization and finally into the Civil War.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute approximately five hundred schoolteachers have attended weeklong workshops on the “Rise of the Magic City and the Evolution of the Civil Rights Movement.” This course begins with post-Civil War labor relations and makes its way to the racial divisions of 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize a historic nonviolent protest.

Two exceptional examples of black entrepreneurialism in antebellum America are the focus of a workshop run by the Apprend Foundation in Durham, North Carolina. More than 250 schoolteachers have thus learned about the lives and careers of Thomas Day and Elizabeth Keckly, a prominent furniture maker and dressmaker, respectively, to examine the role of business in the advancement of African Americans.

Come the summer of 2013, almost 250 schoolteachers will have considered the unique culture of the Mississippi Delta and its civil rights history at Delta State University. This study of what has been called “the most Southern place on earth” ranges from the great flood of 1927 to the development of the blues, the shocking murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, and the great migration of African Americans to the north. . . .

Skinner continues with a long list of other NEH-supported programs that are available to teachers. Read the whole thing at Humanities.

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