Why (More) Black People Should Study The Civil War

Me on the left with two of my best high school friends, circa 1992

Growing up in Jamaica, I learned virtually nothing of American history as a student. In high school, my classmates and I were taught the history of the Caribbean within a British context. To say I was not interested in history would be an understatement. In my mind, I could not see the value or how it related to me. The fact that I was convinced that my history teacher hated me also turned me off from the subject. She would probably fall out of a chair now if she knew I was a history teacher! In college I took art history as a humanities requirement, and my teacher was fascinating. However, once that course was complete I figured that my engagement with history was too.

Harriet Scott, wife of Dred Scott

Last year, my second as a high school teacher, was the first time I taught American history. Prior to teaching, I practiced law for almost 10 years and people have assumed that I was taught history in law school. Not quite; I learned case law, but not necessarily the complex history in which decisions were handed down. I had never even taken a course in American history. Today Professor Pinsker taught us about the concept of coverture as it related to Harriet Scott’s role in her family’s legal case. It was my first time even hearing the word. (Apologies to my law school property professor if I was sleeping had not paid attention during that particular lesson!) Though not by choice (thank you Principal Chang!), as I waded through unfamiliar academic territory, my love affair with history was ignited. So much, that I am currently working on a Master’s degree in the discipline and now consider myself a historian-in-training. It is never too late to look with new eyes, and an open mind.

Bus Ride to Zora Neale Hurston's Gravesite, July 2012

Technology is a huge passion of mine and I am very excited to share the Gilder Lehrman Resources not only my students, but with my classmates who are also educators. Textbooks often leave the readers feeling that time periods come in neat little packages, with the people in history waiting on standby for the next era to begin. Professor Pinkser offered complex perspectives of Dred Scott, John Brown, and the time period before the Civil War, which left my mind reeling with the possibilities for new approaches to teaching the material. He mentioned a quote (Can I hear that one again please Professor Pinsker?) by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Dred Scott decision, which sparked my interest in Emerson’s role in the Civil War. The House Divided resources are excellent, especially for discussing quality academic research. With students who are digital natives, new methods must be incorporated into making history come alive and the interactive nature of these primary resources provides just that.

11th Grade History Class Field Trip, April 2012

This past school year I viewed American history through a lens that was not much different from that of my students, and was challenged with making the subject one with which they  (read: we) could relate. I remembered exactly how it felt to be sitting in my high school class thinking, why do I even need to know this? Most of my students were either immigrants or descended from immigrants, and did not believe that American history related to their lives. They did not know the history of their home countries, moreover how any of it related to America. As the first person in my family born in the United States, I could understand how they felt and this perspective helped me to connect our histories.

Members of Company E, Fourth U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, at Fort Lincoln, Maryland. During the Civil War the regiment lost nearly 300 men. (Library of Congress)

In Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of how black Americans see no greatness in themselves, and “thus no future glory”.  On a field trip to Gettysburg he felt no connection to the history of the Civil War. Coates’ understanding as a middle-school student at the time, was that the legacy of the Civil War belonged “not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property”. If this was the case for American students, imagine how it must be for students of different countries and cultures. My district required that I teach from three different history texts, yet in none of them would my students ever read about the role of black people during the Civil War besides Americans. This is one reason why primary source analysis played a crucial role in my classroom; textbooks alone are never enough.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction, radical American abolitionist missionaries drew from their experiences in Jamaica.

My students and I are mostly from the Caribbean, so in order to make the connections for us I pored over the available research. We learned that the Union blockade created an economic hardship for the people of Jamaica, and of the role our Jamaican and Haitian ancestors played in the Civil War. In the Journal of the Civil War Era, Matthew J. Calvin in his analysis of Gale L. Kenny’s Book Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica 1834-1866 stated, “Historians are only now beginning to recognize what American abolitionists long understood, that the end of slavery outside the United States had an important effect on the movement to secure its end inside the United States.” In the Civil War History Journal in an article titled A Second Haitian Revolution: John Brown, Toussaint Louverture, and the Making of the American Civil War, Calvin discussed how the events leading to revolution in Haiti “had a profound impact on the American mind”. These are some examples of why I am so excited to learn and share with my students about the Civil War, and how much our history as Caribbean blacks is woven into the fabric of the United States.

Posted in Digital Storytelling, Discussion, Memory
14 comments on “Why (More) Black People Should Study The Civil War
  1. patriciaabney says:

    You really have some great points. It was only a few years ago that it was brought to my attention how the end of slavery outside the United States impacted slavery within the states. I’m trying to incorporate that knowedge into my classroom next year. Also, I consider myself quite lucky to have met Ta-Nehisi Coates this summer while attending a Gilder Lehrman seminar in New York. I plan on sharing the article with my students and their parents. His lecture was insightful. Here is the link to the article: attentionhttp://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/02/why-do-so-few-blacks-study-the-civil-war/8831/

    • loilaing says:

      Patricia, it brought a whole different perspective to how I viewed the Civil War. If you have any resources, please share with me. You met him, how cool! 🙂 Do you know if his lecture was recorded? What subject did the seminar cover? I’d love to hear more!

  2. davemcintire says:

    I have read your post three times now and each time found something new to chew on. We couldn’t have more different stories with the exception that I didn’t become a historian-in-training until later in life as well. I wish my students could hear your insights. One of my struggles is getting them see the Civil War beyond an “us versus us” endeavor. ” I love introducing them to Douglass’ and Tubmans and Veseys and Carneys so they see more than whites ‘saving’ black souls. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts throughout the week or so.

    • loilaing says:

      Cool beans Dave! Maybe we should Skype our classes one day. Hmmm….”Us vs Us” is interesting…I’m going to share that wording with my students. I’d love to hear more about how you incorporate Vesey and Carney, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts too 🙂

      • davemcintire says:

        Would Love to Skype with you! I use Vesey to talk about how slavery wasn’t all ‘step and fetchit’. They always ask why the slaves just didn’t stop working and I point out they sometimes did–I like Dr. Pinsker’s ‘negotiated’ comment. I use Carney to talk about the changing view of toward freemen during the war. It is incremental to be sure, but there is a change. I bundle him with a comparison of Luetze “Westward the Course of Empire Wends its Way” Luetze’s mural study is different that the actual mural and I have the kids explore why that might be–is there a change in national thinking as a result of the war.

        • loilaing says:

          Look me up on Skype Dave at: loilaing. With the “negotiated” comment…was that when he discussed how slaves were sometimes in a more flexible position with regard to Harriet Tubman’s brother? Thank you for introducing Luetze to me. Let me go research this mural business right now!

  3. Sharolyn Griffith says:

    Thank you Loi for posting such an insightful and interesting perspective. I live in a mostly white, rural community and love learning and teaching about racial, ethnic and religious diversity. I love to hear all of those perspectives while learning.

    • loilaing says:

      You’re welcome Sharolyn! This summer I met another teacher whose students are from the Appalachian mountains. We were surprised how even with the diversity, that our students had so much in common. Like you, I love to learn about all the different perspectives too.

  4. tmyers says:

    That was a fantastic blog, complete with pictures and insightful perspectives. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Matthew Pinsker says:

    Loi-Natalie, great post! And here is a link to an op-ed by John Brown biographer David Reynolds that provides the quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson (with some context) and also promotes the idea of a presidential pardon for Brown. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02reynolds.html
    I am not a supporter of the pardon movement, but I think it’s a fantastic idea for classroom discussion.

    • loilaing says:

      Thank you so much Professor Pinsker! I’m looking forward to reading that piece. Regarding the question of a pardon, I see a fishbowl activity in the future for my classes…

  6. kieranrobert says:

    I believe the Emerson quote Dr. Pinsker mentioned is as follows, “[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”

    In addition, thank you for sharing your unique perspective. One aspect regarding teaching history that I have been contemplating relates to your post. I often find that the voices of ethnic minorities are undrepresented in history textbooks. As a result, students may feel that the history they are reading does not relate to them.

    As you mentioned you utilized three different textbooks in your course, but the historical material still did not directly relate to your students. Perhaps the primary sources available from Gilder Lehrman can help build interested and directly relate to your students.

    • loilaing says:

      Thank you for remembering the quote Kieran 🙂 You are definitely correct, the Gilder Lehrman primary sources will help a great deal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


House Divided Project

Course Professor
Matthew Pinsker: pinskerm@dickinson.edu
Dickinson College
Carlisle, PA 17013

Course Producer
Lance Warren: warren@gilderlehrman.org
Gilder Lehrman Institute
New York, NY 10036