Using Local Histories to Teach Black History

The teaching of Black history is currently under assault, and teachers, especially Black educators, find themselves on the front lines of this battle. We are often targeted simply because of the color of our skin. Nevertheless, I take pride in my Black identity, and I persevere, just as many other Black teachers do.

To counter the relentless attacks by conservatives against Black history and its instruction, Black educators must adopt strategic approaches to subvert laws and policies intended to penalize them for fulfilling their role in educating children, especially Black students, about their history.

This practice of subversion is rooted in a tradition among Black teachers that dates back to the days when they taught the works of Dr. Carter G. Woodson discreetly, even while under white surveillance.

Given the growing political pressure on teachers due to new laws, school board mandates, and conservative protests, it seems as though teaching honest and truthful history is becoming increasingly challenging. However, one avenue remains open for delivering effective Black history instruction: teaching local history.

I live and work in the Delaware Valley Region, which is rich in history. Philadelphia alone boasts a wealth of historical content that could fill an entire year-long course. My hometown, Camden, New Jersey, is no exception. Moreover, this region offers a significant repository of Black history, enough to sustain a year-long course dedicated to local Black history.

One example of this local Black history is the establishment of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Philadelphia by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. They left the antebellum South to create a unique Black church experience that served as both a spiritual sanctuary for Black people and a catalyst for Black liberation activities.

Predictably, Allen, Jones, and their associates extended their efforts by establishing churches in newly formed Black settlements in southern New Jersey, in towns like Fettersville (Camden), Homesteadville (Merchantville), Davistown (Gloucester Township), Lawnside, and Saddlertown (Bellmawr).

If you’re searching for innovative ways to circumvent unlawful and immoral laws and policies designed to obstruct the teaching of Black history, consider exploring local history. This approach will require you to conduct your research.

However, I understand that you didn’t enter the teaching profession to become a researcher or historian; your primary role is to teach history. Nevertheless, becoming a master teacher—something every educator should aspire to—entails not only conveying information effectively and assessing knowledge but also mastering content knowledge. Embracing this opportunity will enable you to embark on that journey.

It’s important to note that you may not find everything you need in a single article or book. Learning often prompts further questions and demands more in-depth research. So, be prepared to engage in a thorough research process.

To begin, you must determine precisely what you want to learn and teach to your students. While having a broad interest in history is commendable, pursuing multiple topics simultaneously can lead to confusion and frustration. Thus, having a clear plan is essential.

For instance, when I was writing my book, my primary goal was to uncover stories of Black resistance, particularly within New Jersey. My research led me to various fascinating facts about the state, but I focused solely on stories of Black resistance, and luckily, there were plenty to tell.

To assist you in your research journey, consider the following steps:

  1. Use the internet in your initial search to discover basic information. Once you’ve identified your area(s) of research, complete a light search online to see what’s out there. This can help narrow down and/or strengthen your area(s) of interest. With such clarity, you can begin to dig into your area of focus. That can continue online (if you know where to look) or by accessing different resources.
  2. Access academic resources and archival material from your school library. Your school library should have access to resources like Academic Search Premier or Infobase. These are resources made available to you to find more reputable and peer-reviewed information to help you solidify the information you need to teach; information often hidden away from plain view.
  3. Visit your municipal library. This is a great place to find local history. Here, you may find old newspaper articles or books that are specific to your locale that you can use to help supplement the research you’ve already compiled.
  4. Visit your local municipal or county historical society. Here is the upgrade. Historical societies have books, old newspaper clippings, archives, maps, records of buildings and institutions, registers, death records, marriage records, and anything else you can think of dedicated to everything about the municipality or county they serve.
  5. Connect with a historian of the community, a member of the community, a librarian, or an archivist familiar with the history of your locale. This may be one of the best ways to gather research – these individuals have likely done the research for you. These folks are a wealth of information that can point you in the right direction, provide you with exactly what you need, or may themselves serve as the history you’re looking for. It may seem better to do this first, but if you go to these folks with already researched information, you may unlock even more information when you speak with them.

While this may seem like a significant undertaking, remember that teaching is hard work, especially if your goal is to be an outstanding teacher. In the current climate, creativity is essential to staying true to the truth of history and the Black radical tradition of teaching Black history to all students. This commitment is vital, so let’s get to work!



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Up Next