Memorial Day Is Coming, How Are You Teaching Black History?

In writing about the difficulty of teaching about the murder of Tyre Nichols, Rann Miller rightfully argues that the challenge in teaching students about anti-Blackness is “that many students are without the historical and theoretical foundation to enter these discussions from a place of insight and understanding.

This is why an African American History or Black Studies class should be required for graduation. When students have African American History or AP African American studies they will be more equipped to identify tools of resistance to help use for Black liberation today. In this “theBLKcabinet” series, I will try to share with you some suggestions on how to teach and frame lessons on Black history, and my planning for piloting the AP African American Studies course for next year..   

Charles Lewis served his country in World War I. After returning home, he tragically lost his life one month later. Falsely accused of robbery and arrested, a white supremacist mob stormed the jail, and publicly lynched him from a nearby tree.

Similarly, after returning home from serving 4 years in World War 2, Isaac Woodard got in an argument with a bus driver about using the restroom and not long after was beaten by the police.  “The blows to Woodard’s head were so severe that when he woke in a jail cell the next day, he could not see.” 

Around the same time as Isaac Woodard’s service, the Tuskegee Airmen would famously be requested to protect the stealth bomber, and in total shoot down 112 enemy airplanes, offering additional concrete evidence that the courage of Black military service was one reason for the desegregation of the U.S. military.   

It is this complexity of these circumstances that makes teaching about this military unit so enjoyable. Having students truly reflect, discuss, and write about whether or not Black people as James Thompson said “should sacrifice themselves to live half-American?” provides an engaging way for students to consider the challenges of American democracy in regards to Black military service.   

One aspect of teaching about the Black experience in the military is that it can be taught thematically, not necessarily chronologically.   I started this unit with a lesson on the Buffalo Soldiers followed by the Tuskegee Airmen. Students described the successes and challenges of being a Black soldier. Continuously throughout this unit there was a large T-Chart that we added to each stating: “reasons to serve” and “reasons not to serve.” 

Students then read James Thompson’s letter, and learned about the Double V Campaign. To accompany this students read stories about the way Black veterans were treated when they returned home. Some of the stories were beyond devastating and there are way too many of them! I also show clips of the wonderful heartbreaking movie, Mudbound. 

By this point students were having a rich conversation on whether or not Black people should serve in the military around the time period of World War II.

Some argued that the military provides opportunities for individuals who struggled in school or a traumatic family life, and others argued that they would not want to risk dying for a country that has continuously failed to treat them with full dignity. 

To bring this unit home we spent 4 days on the Philadelphia Transit Strike. Students were stunned to learn that their city of Philadelphia shut down on August 1st, 1944 for six days. During that time, ten-thousand white Philadelphia Transit Workers walked out in a white supremacist reaction to simply 8 Black workers being promoted to trolley driver.

The extended mini-unit included lessons on the role of A. Philip Randolph, the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Commission, causes of the strike, and overall timeline of the strike.  One aspect of this strike that I tried to make resonate with students was that FDR put General Hayes in charge of ending the strike, not because the government cared about the racist cause of the strike, but rather because “Navy production diminished by 70%” as Philadelphia was the 3rd biggest producer of World War 2 material. 

I was blessed to be introduced to Steph Manuel, the CEO of TrueFiktion.  Last year, the 9th grade students after learning about the strike helped create a comic book about what happened. They had input on what should happen in the story and who the main character should be. 

This year, students ended the unit by reading the comic book their older peers helped design, finally in print. It was amazing how quiet the room got when I directed students to read. For their summative assessment students had to write a journal entry from the point of view of the main character on the last day of the strike, and as usual for major writing assignments I used my own exemplar to create sentence starters for students with IEPs.  

Overall, I am reminded of how visual Gen Z’s are.  They picked up details in the comic book that I didn’t even notice during my first read, and overall admitted to enjoying reading the comic book. And yet like any unit there are parts of teaching I would go back to and change.  Next year, I plan on adding a lesson specifically on NAACP’s activism during the strike and more detail on the role of labor unions.    

Lastly, next year, I want to add DuBois’s own internal struggle after urging Blacks to “close ranks” and support World War I efforts, as the experience of Black service will help challenge students to make connections to issues of “double consciousness” that are still relevant today.  


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