The desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas exactly sixty-four years ago this weekend remains a flashpoint in American history, the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of education in the United States. Following the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 which rendered racial segregation of schools unconstitutional, the NAACP devised a plan to desegregate Central High School as a test case within the new legal environment created by the Brown decision. A group of nine Black students were selected to integrate the school and, upon their arrival, faced immense violent opposition from white mobs and armed forces deployed by Arkansas’ governor. Historian Taylor Branch described the event as “the most severe test of the Constitution since the Civil War” and the level of conflict it engendered seems to lend further credence to this comparison.
Like many American adults, I can tell you in specific detail where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001 and how the day unfolded as I learned of the terror attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. I was about one week into my sophomore year of high school, and in my English class in a classroom with a view of the Boston skyline. Because of the confusion of the day, and the fact that the planes that attacked the Twin Towers took off from Boston’s Logan Airport just 3 miles away, we were dismissed early. I found my younger brother and we walked home, confused and on edge.
On Tuesday evening, it was announced that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been found guilty of all charges leveled against him in connection with the death of George Floyd in May 2020. The twelve-person jury reached the unanimous verdict that Chauvin committed second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter against Floyd nearly a year go. As we exhale in the wake of this decision, we must remain present to the unending stream of historical and contemporary violence that surrounds this guilty verdict.
This Black History Month and every month, there are a great many figures, moments, and concepts to highlight while teaching Black history in the classroom. But as information about possible material and approaches becomes more widely available, it can be difficult to pinpoint the best tools, strategies, and resources.
Below is a curated list of classroom resources and educator-facing workshops available from Facing History’s peer and partner organizations across the education space this month.
Facing History Cleveland recently offered a riveting professional development webinar to Ohio-based educators called “Standing on Their Shoulders: Unsung Women of the Civil Rights Movement.” There, Program Director Pamela Donaldson and Senior Program Associate Lisa Lefstein-Berusch provided educators with strategies and frameworks they can use to broaden students’ knowledge of the contributions Black women made to the movement, as well as deepen students’ understanding of specific strategies that have driven social change. And soon, educators around the country will have the chance to access this professional development opportunity. As we teach about histories of oppression—including the events of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras—making space for stories of agency is critically important. At Facing History, we believe it’s vital that students not only learn how Black women have been acted upon by outside forces, but also how Black women have taken action to shape the world and their own lives.
As we begin Black History Month 2021, it is clear that we are living through extraordinary times. We have seen many landmark events in Black history over the last year ranging from the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement to the election of the first Black female Vice President of the United States. Determining how to structure reflection on these subjects in the classroom can be challenging, and one way to get started is to prioritize our own learning as educators.
Black History Month will soon begin and, after a history-making twelve months, we have an opportunity to expand our understanding of what Black history is and how we teach it in the classroom.
We believe at Facing History that Black history is American history and that all educators have the responsibility to teach it well all year. But in these times of rapid, profound change and always-on news cycles, it can be difficult to know where to start. The enhanced focus on Black history that accompanies Black History Month each February is an opportunity to commit or recommit to learning and teaching Black history and contemporary issues, regardless of one’s starting point as an educator.
As we approach Inauguration Day on Wednesday, January 20th, we lie at the crossroads of progress and regress; of inclusive representative democracy and mob rule. With so much fear and uncertainty in the air, it is easy to forget the fact that we approach a significant national milestone this week.
“Freedom is not won by a passive acceptance of suffering. Freedom is won by a struggle against suffering.
By this measure, Negroes have not yet paid the full price for freedom.
And whites have not yet faced the full cost of justice.”
―Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?