In a season of racial turmoil across America, one nonprofit organization is pointing teachers to history to help them teach their students about race.
“We have to start teaching race as a construct,” said Steve Becton, associate program director for urban education with Facing History and Ourselves in Memphis.
“To do that, we must step back into history. How did we get here? Race has such a powerful presence in our nation right now, and we need to talk about why in the context of history,” Becton said.
About 20 teachers from across the nation reviewed lesson models last week in Memphis during a session organized by the national organization, whose Memphis office serves more than 500 schools in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Becton encouraged the teachers to present ideas about race as a “construct,” or as a perception that has been created over time. The idea that skin color makes you a different kind of person didn’t always exist, he said, and teachers should highlight that.
He gave an example of the life of Anthony Johnson, an indentured servant who came to the Colonies in the 1600s from Africa. According to historical documents, Johnson, who lived in eastern Virginia, was one of the rare slaves of that time who went on to become a landowner, and he and his family enjoyed status in society.
“In the 1640s, you had a black man in Colonial America enjoying freedoms otherwise associated with being a white male,” Becton said. “How did that change as the construct of race takes root in society?”
By the time Johnson died in 1670, an all-white jury had declared him a “Negro, and by consequence an alien,” and determined that all of his land and wealth would go this his white neighbor, not his son.
For a period of time, people in Colonial Virginia didn’t see Johnson as a black man, but just a man, Becton said. But as the construct of race took hold in the developing nation, that changed.
“It didn’t matter that he had lived as a free man before,” Becton said. “This is an interesting way to show students the construct of race and the impact it had in one man’s life. It’s hard for students to wrap their heads around big numbers when we talk about slavery or killings, but talking about the experience of one person in narrative is something they can get. They can remember what happened to Anthony Johnson.”
Staci Minkins, a social studies teacher at Memphis Business Academy, said she plans on taking Johnson’s story to her class this year.
“How did we get from Anthony Johnson to President Obama? That’s what I want my classroom to look at,” Minkins said. “Slavery has been the first thing I’ve covered in my class. But I realize now that I need to go back further to really get my kids the full picture. If we don’t explain how race became an issue, how can we explain slavery?”
Shelby County Schools in Memphis have adopted Facing History units as a mandate for the social studies curriculum in grades 6-8. The nonprofit organization also has partnerships with more than 30 independent and religious schools in the county.
Facing History and Ourselves will host more teacher trainings, both online and in person, throughout the year.