New Challenges, New Opportunities for Teaching the Civil War & Emancipation

Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field
Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field
Allen Stringfellow (1963)
DuSable Museum of African American History

On the 1st of February the After Slavery Project, together with the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program hosted a day-long teachers’ workshop on “Teaching the New History of Emancipation” at the College of Charleston. The program included a series of panels on the relationship between slavery and the war, on new online resources for teaching emancipation, and on teaching outside the traditional classroom.  The aim of the workshop was to lay the foundations for ongoing collaboration between college- and university-based research historians and a diverse constituency of high school teachers and curriculum experts, archivists and public historians, site interpreters and National Park Service personnel. Lincoln Prize winning historian Eric Foner gave a keynote based on his recent The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which we will post in the coming days, and the generous support of the Humanities Council South Carolina (HCSC) meant that the organizers were able to partially fund almost 6000 miles of travel for teachers from across the Carolinas and as far north as Virginia.

Panel on ‘The Carolinas in the Vortex of War’
Janette Greenwood (Clark University), LuAnn Jones (US National Park Service), Larry Watson (SC State University), Brian Kelly (Queen’s University Belfast), Bernard E. Powers, Jr. (College of Charleston)

One of the key themes in the first full session, on “The Carolinas in the Vortex of War,” was the varied experience of emancipation across the wartime and post-Civil War South. LuAnn Jones of the National Park Service developed some of the insights present in David Cecelski’s work on coastal North Carolina, where the slaves’ close familiarity with the rivers and coastal inlets transformed them into escape routes akin to the much better-known underground railroad–‘waterways to freedom’. Janette Thomas Greenwood (see our interview with her here) followed with a talk on “Union Occupation and the Disintegration of Slavery,” based on her important work on eastern North Carolina in First Fruits of Freedom.  Bernard E. Powers, Jr., Chair of the African American Studies Program at the College of Charleston and the author of an important study of emancipation and its aftermath in Charleston, spoke about the urban experience of emancipation, and Brian Kelly showed how the chaos and disruptions brought on by the war helped to spread disaffection among the enslaved in “Slave Refugeeing and Disaffection in the Upcountry.”

McGill and Randle
Joseph McGill (Slave Dwelling Project) and Lisa Randle (Magnolia Plantation)

The second session emphasized the value of non-textual resources for teaching emancipation. Amy Kirschke, a professor of Art History at UNC Wilmington, led with a presentation on “Visualizing Emancipation through Art.”  Joseph McGill, whose Slave Dwelling Project has expanded in recent years across the South and beyond, shared his experiences in visiting slave cabins alongside students of all ages, and spoke about the importance of these sites for engaging young learners. Lisa Randle directs education and outreach at Magnolia Plantation: she told a captivating story about the layers of history uncovered in tracing the history of former plantations, and about the uphill struggle that freedpeople’s descendants endured in trying to hold on to land acquired after emancipation. A third panel introduced a range of more traditional classroom materials for teaching emancipation: Kerry Taylor of The Citadel College spoke about the enduring value of the WPA Slave Narratives for oral histories of slavery and its disintegration, but also highlighted some of their problems, noting especially  the segregated context in which the original interviews were carried out and the reluctance of black Southerners to speak freely. Dwana Waugh introduced some of the digital resources made available from the Avery Research Center in recent years, and John White from the Lowcountry Digital Library spoke about the After Slavery Project and some of the other exciting developments at LDL. The highlight of the afternoon was Eric Foner’s keynote on “Lincoln and Emancipation,” introduced by Professor Powers, and which we will post on this blog in the coming days.

Foner and Harell-Roye
Historian Eric Foner and Shelia Harrell-Roye
of the Avery Research Center

The Charleston workshop was a good start, but its real aim was to jump start an ongoing collaboration between research historians and high school educators, and in the weeks since we have been working to build on those relationships through a series of local meetings with high school teachers in North and South Carolina. At present we are working to put together a series of lesson plans that align with the K-12 state history standards, and will be digging out some of the most compelling documents in our archives to produce the very best, high-quality online teaching resources available in either state on slave emancipation and its aftermath. We’re excited about the possibilities, and hope that any of our readers who are engaged in teaching or teaching administration will stay tuned and, if possible, get involved in this important work as it proceeds.

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