The Shaping Role Of Place

The central goal of this project is to create a nationally replicable model for developing African American studies curricula that link locally significant figures with broader currents in American history. The project brings K-12 teachers together with an interdisciplinary team of scholars and local history researchers to explore "The Shaping Role of Place in African American Biography" and to generate curriculum units and materials that meet the challenges of new curriculum frameworks. Our central focus is on five African Americans whose stories link a sparsely populated rural county in New England with events and movements of enduring national significance. Each of their stories can be productively woven into humanities education curricula appropriate for different grades and different subject areas. Both the curriculum units and materials produced by this project and the curriculum development process itself are of value to schools and teachers across the country.

This project pursues four focal themes:

  • the role of local geography, history and culture in shaping the lives of representative African Americans

  • the potential of African American biography to illuminate the American experience

  • the powerful synergy of local history research and humanities education

  • the value of cross disciplinary perspectives in the study of major events, periods and texts in American history

In a 1971 lecture, Ralph Ellison cited "Heraclitus' axiom 'Geography is fate'" yet noted that "very little attention has been given to the role played by geography in shaping the fate of Afro-Americans." In broad strokes, Ellison sketched the differences between his origins as "a Southwesterner," a native of Oklahoma, and Richard Wright's as a product of "the Old South." "Both of us were descendants of slaves, but since my civic, geographical, and political circumstances were different from those of Mississippi, Wright and I were united by our connection with a past condition of servitude, and divided by geography and a difference of experience based thereupon."

Samual Harrison

In similar terms, W.E.B. Du Bois, in an interview just months before his death, looked back on his relationship with Booker T. Washington and attempted to explain the roots of their sharp political differences: "I never thought Washington was a bad man. I believed him to be sincere, though wrong. He and I came from different backgrounds. I was born free. . . He felt the lash of an overseer across his back. I was born in Massachusetts, he on a slave plantation in the South. My great-grandfather fought with the Colonial Army in New England in the American Revolution. I had a happy childhood and acceptance in the community. Washington's childhood was hard."

Du Bois was a native of Berkshire County, the westernmost area of Massachusetts. His personal and family history illustrates in the local landscape central facets of American life: the presence of people of African descent since the earliest days and the complexly varied specificities of their experience in different areas of the country. Tracing Du Bois' story back through time to the horrors of the Middle Passage and out from a sleepy rural town to the great metropolitan centers of several nations, we can begin to glimpse the inextricable connections of "geography" and "fate."

In five representative African American lives, we find illuminating intersections of local and national scenes. These biographies intersect decisive moments in American and African American history: for Agrippa Hull, it was the War of Independence, for Elizabeth Freeman the early stirrings of New England abolitionism, for Samuel Harrison the Civil War, for James Van Der Zee the Harlem Renaissance, and for Du Bois the birth of the modern civil rights movement. From primary sources and biographical accounts of these figures, our project will develop curricula in line with the call by the National Council for History in the Schools' (NCHS) call to "utilize regional and local history by exploring specific events and movements through case studies and historical research. Local and regional history should enhance the broader patterns of United States and World History."

Much information about these five people and their social and historical contexts has been unearthed and documented in recent years by researchers associated with this project and its institutional partners. Our local investigations illustrate how historical and cultural understanding is continually augmented by the archaeologist's trowel, the demographer's database, and the researcher's archives. Discussing "the practice of history," Bernard Bailyn notes the invaluable contributions of "non-academic historians . . . in state, regional, and local historical societies, museums, and restorations" in developing guides to archives and physical sites and publishing valuable documentary series such as the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Local history research can enrich or even reshape broader historical narratives. Bailyn describes the "famous case" of two British historians who located seventeenth-century census records from a pair of inland villages. Their discovery of dramatic population shifts "implied a kind of mobility nobody had dreamed of" and "transformed much of early modern British social history."

Such expansion of knowledge in the humanities has been accompanied by a movement to articulate consistent learning standards which increasingly define the curricular terrain for K-12 teachers. Organizations such as theBradley Commission, NCHS, the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), and the National Council for History Education (NCHE) have urged teachers to pay more and better attention to U.S. and world history, relate historical content and skills, and create illuminating connections with other subject areas. In 1996, the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association jointly issued a set of twelve standards for English Language Arts to guide the teaching of language skills and literature.

As educational policymakers identify more precisely what students should know and know how to do, teachers face the challenges of revised instructional priorities, new teaching texts and materials, and new assessments. With these challenges comes an opportunity to learn more about American history and literature and to make their study exciting and intellectually engaging. In central New England, this challenge has been addressed by a network of teachers associated with a small public liberal arts college and a nascent African American Heritage Trail. This network has held workshops in area schools and launched a small-scale curriculum development project in one district. With support from a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) curriculum development grant, these seeds can take deeper hold and provide enhanced curricular resources and models.

While our proposal centers on history, it is very much an interdisciplinary enterprise. Our project team includes people with training in history, literature, anthropology, political science, elementary and secondary education. Creative individuals, like social trends and cultural movements, often cross the categories into which academic disciplines segment knowledge. The achievements of someone like Du Bois, for example, span several areas of study in the humanities. We hope to use African American studies content to create rich cross-curricular connections in line with the NCHE recommendation that teachers create courses which "demonstrate the interdependence of history and the humanities, by concurrent studies of literature, philosophy, and the arts" and the NCTE/IRA recommendation that "Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world."