In his eighth-grade American history class at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Germantown, Md., Philip Jackson tells a story about going on long family road trips to southern Virginia and North Carolina when he was a child in the late 1970s and early ’80s. When they would stop to pick up his grandmother, he tells the students, she would bring a basket of food, toilet paper and a large container of iced tea.
It wasn’t until Jackson was older that he learned his grandmother’s habit grew from traveling during periods of enforced segregation that prohibited blacks from stopping at certain restaurants or using restrooms available to white patrons. A granddaughter of a woman who had been born into slavery, she grew up in the Jim Crow South, where such discrimination was common. Bringing supplies with her, even long after Civil Rights laws were passed, was a practice she never shook.
“She carried her history with her,” Jackson tells the class, referencing a James Baldwin quote. “We are our history.”
The lesson the 46-year-old teacher wants to impart is that while slavery in America can feel distant, we are only a few generations removed from it. And he wants students in his ethnically and racially mixed classroom to make the connections to that history. He wants it to be relevant to their lives.
Social studies and history teachers throughout the country face unique challenges when it comes to educating students about America’s slavery past. Many worry about whether their students can handle the raw details of abuse and predation that slavery entailed. Some feel ill-equipped or that they lack the training to teach the subject. Some are concerned that delving into that history will stir up anger, hurt, shame, guilt. And for many, there just isn’t enough time to address slavery as deeply and carefully as they would like.
Over the course of the year, Jackson’s students will spend eight to 10 class sessions discussing slavery and how it affected American history. It’s a lot more than Jackson learned about slavery as a student in the same county in the Washington suburbs three decades earlier. But it can still feel like not enough.
“To really get into this, we need to carve out time to discuss the condition of slavery, what it actually meant and felt like,” Jackson said. “You could spend a whole year on that of course, but we really box it into a short time.”
Robbie Robbins, a longtime history teacher at Concord Middle School in Concord, Mass., has also felt the long reach of slavery in his family and shared that with his students. The Concord school district has embraced teaching American history using a curriculum it developed with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit group that helps schools and teachers create programs that examine societal racism and prejudice. Concord students immerse themselves in these difficult lessons about slavery. They explore its horrors and use original historical documents and multiple perspectives to more fully understand how the institution was nurtured and expanded in the same America that championed equality and freedom.
Robbins, who is white, had become accustomed to teaching these lessons and looking square in the eye the ugliest aspect of America’s past. But a few years ago, Robbins, 48, learned that in the middle of the 18th century in New England, his family on his father’s side owned a slave. The information stunned him.
“I had trouble wrapping my head around that, honestly, when I first heard it, because I would never have guessed it in a million years,” Robbins said. “I actually was even nervous telling my students about it.”
Learning about his family’s past, and how they later freed the man they had enslaved, led Robbins to think “on a really personal level about what [slavery] had been like.” That, he said, made him a better teacher of a difficult subject.
For black and white educators, the issue of race often enters into class discussions and can affect the degree to which they are comfortable leading lessons about slavery.
Black teachers are underrepresented in schools across the country. While blacks constitute 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, just 7 percent of America’s public school teachers are black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Myron Curtis, who is black, teaches American history at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, Va. He said he felt uncomfortable when he first started teaching sections on slavery in classes that were majority white.
“After my first two years teaching, I just made it a point to make sure that I really built a relationship with these kids in class because … if you do, then the kids will feel more comfortable,” Curtis, 34, said. “Then, when you do have these sensitive discussions, it’s a lot easier for everybody in the classroom to open up, and it feels like a safe space.”
Sometimes, when emotions run high, maintaining a safe space can be challenging. Keanya Clifton-Roach, who is black, found that out in the fall of 2016 when teaching a government class in a majority white public high school in southern Maryland. For one class project, she asked students to read articles about the Confederate flag and analyze whether it represented heritage or hate.
Clifton-Roach, 42, envisioned it as an academic exercise for the students, but reactions quickly boiled over. Black students in the class told her they could lose friends if they wrote what they really felt. Other students came to her in tears about the project.
“It really touched on some nerves, especially with the white parents and the white community in that area,” Clifton-Roach said. “A lot of these kids could not handle it. It got to the point where parents told my principal their children would not do the assignment.”
Mark Hoey, who is 53 and white, has taught American history in Philadelphia’s public schools since 1993. He, too, said he wasn’t prepared at first for the strong feelings that coursed through his students when they studied slavery and related material.
“It really affected those kids. It’s really raw, and it’s not just because somebody’s rehashing [the history] and making them angry,” Hoey said. “I had my master’s in history, so I got the academics of it, but not the emotional impact. And it’s really strong.”
Despite trepidations and concerns they may harbor about teaching the difficult history of slavery, the educators interviewed for this report shared a belief of how essential it is for all students — for all Americans — to have a deep understanding of the role slavery played in shaping the country at every stage of its existence and how its legacy is still with us in ways large and small.
“If we don’t recognize slavery, if we downplay its role in the 19th century and before that, if we downplay the failures of Jim Crow, then we’re not starting off on a good foot,” said Jonathan Barr, who is white and teaches American history at Ramsay High School in Birmingham, Ala. “The recognition is where you start and then you go from there.”
About the project: Teaching Slavery
For this project on how slavery is taught, The Washington Post interviewed more than 100 students, teachers, administrators and historians throughout the country and sat in on middle school and high school history classes in Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Germantown, Md.; Concord, Mass.; Broken Arrow, Okla.; and Washington, D.C.
The articles in this project examine the lessons students are learning about slavery, obstacles faced by teachers in teaching this difficult subject, the right age to introduce hard concepts about slavery to young students and how teachers connect the history of slavery to 21st-century racism and white supremacy. Our focus is on public schools because teaching choices are made by elected policymakers and school officials who determine curriculum and whose decisions are implemented by administrators and teachers whose salaries are publicly funded. Find other stories from the project here.