Curriculum Immerses Students in Impacts of Slave Trade
Canoeing through a historic rice plantation in Charleston inhabited by alligators in early June, Clara Denham got a small taste of what it would have been like for slaves clearing swamps and harvesting rice in the south’s oppressive heat.
The eighth-grader, who attends Broomfield’s Aspen Creek K-8, challenged herself to learn about slavery by joining a school district trip to Charleston, S.C., to see firsthand what was one of the country’s busiest ports during the slave trade.
“I’m just a lot more educated now,” she said. “I’m friends with people who look like me and usually think like me. It’s cool to leave my own little bubble.”
This fall, she’s using the Stono Rebellion as the topic for her National History Day project, with plans to include video from the trip in a documentary.
The trip included a visit to a small sign marking the 1739 slave uprising. In contrast, the students also visited a towering bronze statue of John C. Calhoun, a former secretary of war and defender of slavery.
“There are a lot of different perspectives on history and not all of them are heard,” Clara said. “I want to educate others about what happened.”
Clara was one of six students who joined Boulder Valley teachers’ visit to historic Charleston sites over three days as part of the AT LAST — Alliance to Teach the Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade — project.
While it was the third annual summer trip to Charleston through the project, it was the first time students were invited.
Their itinerary included the McLeod plantation museum, the Caw Caw historic rice plantation and a slave mart museum.
They also learned about the Gullah culture, kept alive by local descendants of the West Africans brought to America as slaves, and visited the church where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers.
The AT LAST project, a collaboration between Impact on Education and the school district , last year included 10 teachers at four schools.
Fran Ryan, the former CEO of Impact on Education, also enlisted the help of historian Peter Wood, who wrote “Black Majority” on the slave trade in colonial South Carolina. He now lives in Longmont after retiring from Duke University.
Teachers, with help from Wood and historians from Georgetown University, developed lesson plans based on their trip to Charleston in 2016. They also created an extensive bibliography of webinars, written publications and multi-media resources for use in the classroom.
The curriculum this year will be taught at Aspen Creek K-8, Boulder High and Lafayette’s Ryan Elementary.
The Boulder High class is offered as an elective, while the curriculum is integrated into social studies in fifth grade and seventh grade.
Enrollment in Boulder High’s race relations class doubled this fall, to 32 students, from the inaugural class offered in the spring. Next semester, Nederland Middle/Senior students also can enroll in the Boulder High race relations class through distance learning.
Teacher Nick Salazar, who traveled to Charleston with the students, said the trip prompted him to include more primary sources in his reading list, including narratives from slaves and slave owners.
He said he wants to focus more on who writes history and on the brutality of slavery, including “slave breeding farms,” where babies were separated from their mothers right after birth.
During a recent class, students talked about why it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write and read a first person account from a slave who was captured in Nigeria as a 10-year-old.
Students suggested that denying slaves an education was a way to maintain control over them. One student noted that “reading and writing is creating something that’s your own.”
Salazar followed the discussion by talking about the continued inequalities for African Americans after slavery was abolished, including keeping them segregated in separate, subpar schools.
That practice continued until 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
Today, Salazar added, there’s still a wide academic achievement gap between African American students and their white classmates.
“That idea that they’re lesser continued,” he told the class.
Boulder High senior Cristian Escobar said he signed up for the class to learn more after hearing musicians address police brutality.
“It really made me curious to research it and learn the history behind it,” he said. “I have a better understanding of how things got to this point.”
He said the class is interesting and lively, though “we do have our serious moments when the whole class is shocked in disbelief.”
Classmate Hailey Andresen said she needed a history credit and liked the idea of exploring slavery and its legacy in depth.
“It’s been more whitewashed in all my other classes,” she said. “Slavery deserves an entire class, not just a unit. I want to know the actual history.”
She said the class has been her favorite, teaching her history she didn’t know, including that Boulder had a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 1920s .
“Racism is still there,” she said. “I want to grow up and stop it. I don’t want to just let it happen.”
The two Boulder High students, now seniors, who went on the summer Charleston trip echoed those sentiments, saying seeing Charleston made them even more determined in their goals.
Elly Scheeres said she expected the trip to be emotional, but still was surprised by how much it affected her. As with Clara’s experience, she said, it was in the rice plantation when the enormity of the cruelty of slavery hit her.
“As I was canoeing around that empty rice patty, I thought about how the slaves had to clear out the giant trees, to work in this water with alligators and parasites,” she said. “Owners didn’t care if they died.”
Tiny shackles used for children in the Old Slave Mart also elicited horror.
“You can read about it in books, but you don’t really know,” she said.
Classmate Kayla Olness said she liked meeting a local politician who shared concerns that polling places had been closed in predominantly black neighborhoods in the city, disenfranchising black voters.
“The past is still a problem,” she said. “That’s why we took this trip.”
She added that she’s now noticing how much is missing from textbooks on the history of slavery and it’s wide-reaching effects.
In her advanced placement European history class, she said, the textbook mentions the strong economies of the U.S.’s European colonies, but doesn’t say anything about slave labor driving those economies.
“The textbook doesn’t touch it,” she said. “In other classes, we don’t acknowledge this history. We need to teach teenagers to be more self aware. We live in a bubble here. Everyone experiences are very homogenous.”
Cate Keenan, who was at Ryan Elementary and now is a sixth-grader at Lafayette’s Angevine Middle, said her favorite experience was visiting the McLeod plantation.
“When we were in Charleston it was like everything we learned in a classroom was coming to life,” she said.
She said she was most surprised to learn that Charleston was the location of the 2015 church shooting, with Dylann Roof saying he chose the African American church because he wanted to “start a race war.”
Molly Peterson, who taught Cate and her classmates about the slave trade at Ryan Elementary, struggled to find the words to describe the summer trip.
“There is nothing quite like watching the gears turn in the heads of students, who learned in great depth about the horror of the Atlantic slave trade, as they gaze out into the Charleston Harbor and imagine the hundreds of slave ships that arrived at Sullivan’s Island,” she said.
Aspen Creek seventh-grade social studies teacher Chris Hespe described the trip as a “game changer.”
“Standing in that environment, hearing experts tell you the stories while feeling the heaviness in the air, the reality sinks in,” he said. “You’re standing at the port where bodies were thrown overboard. It’s incredible how people survived.”
He said his goal is to continue to dig deeper than the basic, sometimes biased, outline of slavery that’s typically taught.
“It’s missing out on so many perspectives that paint the whole picture,” he said. “It’s so easy to be comfortable not being challenged on issues like this and not connect history with how it impacts your day-to-day life.”
He taught about slavery last school year through his social studies classes, and this year is making revisions as he’s now co-teaching a combined social studies and language arts humanities class.
Last school year, he focused on tracing current foods and culture back to the West Africans brought here as slaves. His plans for this year include incorporating more primary sources and adding social justice elements.
Kyle Addington, Boulder Valley’s director of health and culture, said the district is proud of the AT LAST program and wants to find ways to give more teachers similar opportunities and reach more students.
Visiting South Carolina allowed teachers to enhance their knowledge and increase the depth of their teaching, he said.
As the district looks at revisions to the social studies standards, he wants to look for more opportunities for teachers to gain a similar depth of knowledge.
He said he’s particularly interested in the idea of professional historical interpreters, versus tour guides. A historical interpreter worked with the Boulder Valley students and teachers during the Charleston trip.
“It’s someone who understands complex history and leads people through it,” he said. “The skills are pretty amazing.”
While it’s not practical to send large numbers of teachers to Charleston, for example, bringing a historical interpreter here to talk to teachers could be a possibility, he said.
He said another goal is to include more Colorado history, such as the local history of indigenous people.
“We have many issues locally that are worthy of good quality social interpretation,” he said. “That’s something we could probably get better at as a district.”
Amy Bounds: 303-473-1341, email@example.com or twitter.com/boundsa