In this unprecedented year of economic uncertainty, mass protests and a global pandemic, back to school evokes worry rather than excitement for many parents and teachers. As covid-19 infection rates surge in parts of the United States, school committees and superintendents have been assessing various school reopening plans, from a hybrid teaching model or remote-only to the riskier option of face-to-face. Teachers are in an unenviable position. They must prepare for all possibilities.
Regardless of the format, students are also returning to school this fall with lingering questions about what they witnessed in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain and other African Americans in recent months. Violent policing — seen most recently in the detainment of a Black family in Aurora, Colo. — and rampant anti-Black racism remain urgent and unsettling problems.
In such chaotic times, teachers can help their students by confronting — rather than avoiding — the challenges and complexities of this moment. Human rights issues such as racial justice and inequality require honest and mindful classroom conversations about race and power. But here is the good news: During some of the most contentious historical periods in our nation, teachers have led the way, often serving as anchors for young children trying to make sense of the world in which they lived. Teachers have encouraged students to think critically, consider their own actions and define their role in shaping their communities — all essential lessons for the classroom today.
One such teacher was Susan Paul, an African American woman from Boston. The daughter of a minister, Paul came of age in the early 19th-century just as the abolition movement entered a second wave. Paul joined thousands of Black and White Americans in organizing and agitating for the immediate emancipation of millions of enslaved African Americans, racial equality and Black citizenship. Opponents vilified this interracial social movement, calling abolitionists fanatics, zealots and traitors. Paul, however, was unfazed.
Following in her mother Catherine’s footsteps, Paul combined her activist work and education when she became a teacher at an all-Black primary school in Boston in the 1830s. For Paul, shielding young children from the subject of slavery bordered on malpractice. In her classroom, slavery and abolition framed curricular lessons on reading, writing and music.
One evening in late March 1834, Paul and 25 of her students were part of a large antislavery crowd that shuffled into the Second Baptist meeting house in Salem, Mass. At this antislavery meeting, Paul and her students listened to impassioned lectures and powerful resolutions on immediate emancipation, the complicity of many Northerners and the global reach of the abolition movement. They also heard biblical scripture, like Isaiah 58: “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet.” Paul’s students then sang hymns at the meeting.
Paul not only taught her students music lessons, but she also taught them about their individual rights and community responsibilities. Almost all of her students had either experienced or witnessed racial prejudice, and they were learning about the fight to abolish slavery and the need to take a stand. And so, these children literally and figuratively strengthened their voices as they sang about freedom and citizenship while learning about the power of protest.
Paul’s pedagogy was rooted in an anti-oppression framework. When her 6-year-old African American student James Jackson died of tuberculosis, Paul honored his life while also linking education to the fight against oppression in her 1835 book, “Memoir of James Jackson, the Attentive and Obedient Scholar.” This book introduced young readers to multiple forms of societal oppression, including slavery, racial prejudice and class discrimination. Paul recalled that James cried when she explained to him that enslaved children in the South could be punished for trying to learn to read and write. After comforting him and giving him space to reflect, she then encouraged him and other children to disavow oppressive beliefs and behaviors through individual and communal good actions rooted in Christian values.
Holidays, such as the West Indian Emancipation Day celebrations, also became a teaching tool to highlight Black agency in the fight against oppression. In cities such as Boston, New York and Pittsburgh, Aug. 1 commemorated the day that enslaved African Americans in the British West Indies were formally emancipated in 1834. That year, Paul and her 30 students took in the energy from the crowd before performing songs at a public celebration in South Reading, Mass. In 1841, 1,000 African Americans gathered in Williamsburg, N.Y., to observe the holiday. At the gathering, schoolchildren gave recitations and teachers John Peterson and Ransom Wake delivered stirring speeches on freedom and peace. These celebrations helped Black children imagine an immediate future when all Black people would be free.
Some White teachers were inspired to focus on Black freedom in their classrooms too.
In July 1836, White children at a Sabbath school in Massachusetts read Paul’s book, prayed for the freedom and happiness of Black children and donated their money to her school. Hundreds of miles away in Toledo, Laura Haviland, an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad in Michigan, taught at a poorly funded African American primary school. She watched her 20 or so students excel as they recited speeches on emancipation. When the board of education withheld funding for the school, Haviland took up public space to showcase her students’ intellectual achievements.
This put Haviland and her students at risk in the face of White mobs who had attacked Black schoolhouses. Undeterred, she and her students paraded through town, with a Black girl crowned as queen and Black boys hoisting a banner that read “Knowledge is power.” In a remarkable turnaround, the board of education soon agreed to fund the school. Haviland’s successful and brave action not only helped to sustain the school for years to come but also was a step toward securing justice and equity.
Students who had been schooled in the principles of the abolition movement by their teachers were well-prepared years later to head South to teach freed people during the Civil War era. Charlotte Forten, the first African American graduate of the Salem Normal School, settled on St. Helena Island in South Carolina to begin her teaching position. She vowed to do more than just follow a standard curriculum. She worked to build up these children after slavery tried to tear them down. She taught them new heroes and heroines, such as Haitian independence leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, so that children knew, in Forten’s words, “what one of their own color could do for his race.”
In short, for almost two centuries Black teachers have shaped the Black protest tradition and trained subsequent generations to strengthen Black institutions. When the veteran teacher and abolitionist Sarah Mapps Douglass brought her class of 18 African American girls to the Philadelphia branch of the Freedmen’s Savings Bank in December 1872, she shared a practical lesson — one that extended far beyond mathematical skills. When Douglass deposited money in the bank, she presented to her students a vision of Black economic freedom.
Today, teachers have an opportunity to make a meaningful impact in the lives of students when they engage contemporary human rights and public health issues, including anti-Black racism and police violence. As the teaching careers of Susan Paul and others demonstrate, exploring the realities of Black life in the United States is critical educational work. It enhances the curriculum and energizes students of all races to learn, think and act, long after they leave the classroom.