African American History
1st high school black history class of its kind taught at Tuscaloosa
By Jonece Starr Dunigan on AL.com
August 29, 2019
A group of Tuscaloosa high schoolers will learn how to unearth their city’s black history during the first African American history class of its kind in Alabama, according to educators.
The "History of Us" course at Central High School is an examination of history from when African slaves were brought to America through the administration of President Barack Obama. Students will track major themes such as black community building, the continuous struggle of black freedom from different types of oppression and how the legacies of slavery and segregation continue to echo throughout modern American history. Throughout the school year, students will be working with more than a dozen community partners as they explore Tuscaloosa's black history.
The course is more than just what students gain inside the classroom, according to John Giggie, a University of Alabama professor who is one of the instructors for the course. At the end of the school year, students will present their knowledge through community-based, artistic projects.
"We are trusting them and challenging them to be historians on their own and then take that knowledge and turn it outside by giving it a public-facing dimension so that it is not just 18 students and two instructors," Giggie said. "It's a much larger experiment on how we can teach about history in a way that is fuller, rounder, richer and truer."
The course was inspired by the Equal Justice initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit organization focused on ending mass incarceration and researching the nation’s history with racial inequality. Giggie and Margaret Lawson, a UA graduate student, have been collaborating with EJI for three years during a college-level course investigating the lynchings that occurred in Alabama. In April 2018, EJI opened the award-winning National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum, which illustrates the relationship between racial violence and mass incarceration. Giggie said EJI mentored him as he crafted the class.
Lawson said they started thinking about a high school-level African American history course after college students taking the lynching class started questioning their own high school education.
"A lot of times (college) students would come in, learn their history and every time they would say, 'Why didn't I learn this sooner? Why didn't anyone talk to me about this sooner?'" Lawson said.
So the educators started examining how black history is researched and taught at the high school level. Giggie said they became concerned about the tendency to condense black history into one lesson or topic that is only talked about during Black History Month in February.
"We need to integrate every day, in every way, ideas of black history and ideas of American history," Giggie said. "African American history and American history have always been intertwined no matter where you start. No matter where you look, a fuller, broader, richer history looks at both of the two together."
Giggie and Lawson selected Central High for the course not because of the school's proximity to UA, but its significance in Tuscaloosa's history. Central high was created in 1979 following a federal court order forcing the integration of the city's segregated high schools.
Giggie and Lawson have spent the past few weeks helping students develop the mindset and the tools they need to become their own historians. For example, one assignment included students examining how Tuscaloosa is remembered visually.
While looking at a picture of Bryant–Denny Stadium, students not only investigated the relationship between football and history, but also explored how the picture doesn’t represent all of Tuscaloosa's history.
"We then flipped to another picture of Tuscaloosa in 1924 of the KKK gathering on Black Warrior River and we talked about what does this picture represent?" Lawson said. "Then we flipped to when Martin Luther King, Jr preached at the First African Baptist Church. We are trying to get them to understand that there is a broad scope of how Tuscaloosa has been memorialized in its past."
While class has been in session for about three weeks, Lawson said the lessons are bringing out personal stories. One student talked about how their grandparents had to quit their jobs to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Another talked about their family member's experience while attending Druid City High before it was consolidated, Lawson said.
"When we were looking at the picture of Bryant stadium, one student told a story about how the university expanded and took over the neighborhood where her grandfather used to live and how (the university) literally paved over the black neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa," Lawson said. "It inspired them to investigate this history because they are seeing themselves in history."
Students are taking the "History of US" class as an elective because Alabama high school students aren't required to take an African American history course, according to the Alabama State Department of Education. That means the juniors in Giggie and Lawson's course are taking the class in addition to their U.S. history class. Lawson's said the African American history course is inspiring the students' projects for their U.S. history classes.
Students are also learning how to use their social media savviness to educate the community about its own history. The course exposes them to how organizations like EJI and the Southern Poverty Law Center are using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms to expand knowledge of black history. Students are required to post historical content on social media sites that instructors created for the class.
Giggie said the students are inspired to spread the information beyond the school. During the spring semester, he will present a lesson plan to teach the Civil Rights Movement to middle schoolers.
"They demanded to take this knowledge out," Giggie said. "They want to take that lesson and teach it themselves in a local middle school. They want it to be in a forum for the entire school to talk about their insights into their research."
That’s one of the main goals of the class, Giggie said: to challenge students to not only see their own experiences in history, but also use their knowledge to create a better world.
"I want them to see that their voices and their identities are part of the fabric of everyday life in America — that their experience and their family's experiences are valuable," he said. "Part of our effort here is to begin to nourish the next generation of young intellectuals — those who can articulate and envision a world that is more complicated, but is also a world that can be improved on."
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