Primary Source Highlight – Using Last Seen Ads in the Secondary African American History Classroom “theBLKcabinet Series #3”
I will always choose a primary source over a secondary source in my history class. Primary sources offer a way for students to think critically about the past, question the author’s purpose, historical context, and more. If we want students to think critically about media, politics, and their own education, students must be challenged to analyze and evaluate a variety of primary sources. If a student can think critically about a newspaper report from the 1800’s, they can use the same skills to think critically about an email, tweet, or blog post.
For this reason, I was truly grateful to get the opportunity to consult with Villanova University and develop a lesson plan for their Last Seen Ad Project. Following emancipation, thousands of ads were placed by the formerly enslaved seeking reconnection with their families. According to the Equal Justice Initiative “Roughly half of all enslaved people were separated from their spouses and parents; about 1 in 4 of those sold were children.” The thousands of Ads that were placed all over the world are evidence of the resilience of the Black family’s bond, and the ongoing trauma and grief that still existed after emancipation.
Reconstruction is one of my least favorite units to teach. Due to the scope and complexity of this short twelve year time period, I often find that students struggle to comprehend the historical context of Black life after the 13th Amendment. Adding the two lessons I wrote strengthened my Reconstruction unit by leaning on two of LaGarrett King’s “Black Historical Consciousness Principles:” Black Agency, Resistance, and Perseverance, and Black Joy.
There were two central historical questions for this two day lesson. The first one challenged students to answer “How did Black churches reconnect formerly enslaved families during and after Reconstruction?” and the second one asked “How did Black reverends assist in reconnecting families during and after Reconstruction?” By comparing the point of view of several authors: the formerly enslaved seeking a family member in the ad, descriptions of the Black church from Reverend and Bishops of the time period, and Du Bois’s own evaluation of the Black church, students create a larger picture of the goals, celebrations, and challenges of the formerly enslaved during Reconstruction.
In King’s description of “Black Agency, Resistance, and Perseverance” he rightfully argues that Black history is often focused on suffering and the normalization of oppression. King’s claim that “Black history is not about developing sympathetic figures; instead, it exposes how their humanity shaped and constructed world ideologies and practices” is evident in the role of the Black Church and preachers in working to unite Black families post-reconstruction.
This lesson encourages students to learn about the sharing of literary skills, religious practices, and the extent of the Black newspaper to connect people across the African diaspora as evidence of Black humanity’s perseverance. By challenging students to think critically about how Black people might find each other without a cell phone, social media, or email requires them to think about the historical context of Black communication post-emancipation.
King’s principle of “Black Joy” is also described as “Black people’s resolve in the face of oppression that grief need not be the dominant attitude or disposition.” What could be more joyful than the unconditional love and history of the Black family? In addition, one of the most central places for celebrating Black joy is the Black Church. In Chapter 10 of The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois describes the Black church as “the social centre of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of African character.” By including Du Bois’s perspective students evaluate how the Black Church enables Black humanity to continuously and joyfully shaped.
What was so beautiful about the Last Seen Ads is that they exposed students to the power of Black Institutions. As Rann Miller argues “to really give Black people what they need, we should be meeting the need by way of Black institutions.” Black institutions, like the Black church, and their leaders provide a means of equipping the Black community with aspirations as they can learn from the legacy of all those like the formerly enslaved that came before.