February marks Black History Month, also known as National African American History Month, the annual celebration of notable achievements by African Americans as well as a time to reflect on their critical role in the history of the United States. This period of recognition dates back to 1915, 50 years post-emancipation, when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). This organization went on to sponsor a week dedicated to Americans of African descent during the second week of February, which coincides with the birthdays of two of the most important figures in all of U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Since 1976, that week has expanded to embrace the whole month of February, and each year the sitting U.S. president has established a different theme for Black History Month. For 2016, that theme is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.”
Elementary students at The New Century School learned last week that Baltimore can be counted as one of these hallowed places in U.S. history. Although Maryland upheld the constitutionality of slave-holding from 1715 through 1864, the city of Baltimore was a hybrid of northern and southern proclivities. Being so close to the Mason-Dixon line, it was a stopover point for escaping slaves headed north to abolitionist states or Canada. It was also home to many freed former slaves, one of whom was Frederick Douglass himself.
TNCS students got to experience a walking tour of Baltimore through the eyes of none other than this humanist visionary, hearing how he escaped from slavery to become one of the greatest and most influential abolitionist leaders, among all of his other celebrated accomplishments, including being the first African American to hold a high government office. Brought to life by teacher, historian, blogger, and self-styled “griot” Dr. Brian C. Morrison, “Frederick Douglass” mesmerized the kids with his life story. Pointing out places where he lived and worked as they walked, he explained how he escaped both actual bondage as well as broke free of the less tangible shackling of 19th-century U.S. society, in which even free people of color were not accorded the rights to education, voting, land-holding, etc. of U.S. citizens.
Dr. Morrison supports the William J. Watkins, Sr. Educational Institute, which was established “to ensure that ALL children, especially those in under-served and under-resourced communities receive the best education possible.” In this way, he not only inhabits the character of Frederick Douglass but also continues Douglass’ legacy as an advocate for civil and human rights, the pursuit of education, and free debate.
The walking tour culminated at the Frederick Douglass | Isaac Myers Maritime Park & Museum located overlooking the harbor on Thames St. in Fell’s Point, where Frederick Douglass took a few questions before they visited the exhibits. TNCS students asked questions that got to the heart of the matter: “How can one man own another?” for example.
The learning didn’t stop there. Elementary Language Arts and Global Studies teacher Kiley Stasch always finds ways to connect her dual subjects, so, on returning from their walking tour, TNCS students were asked to compose a narrative from a runaway slave’s point of view. “I set up a simulation in which they rolled a die to see where they might wind up after fleeing the plantation they started from,” said Ms. Stasch. “It was the luck of the dice to see where they went next at each step of the journey.” This showed the students that so much of a slave’s chance of successful escape was completely out of their own control: “They saw how much uncertainty and difficulty a slave would likely encounter.” After they had the blueprint of their stories, they were asked to reflect on the journey along the Underground Railroad and the outcome—some made it to freedom and some did not—and then write about them.
“They were completely captivated by this interactive experience,” said Ms. Stasch, “and I got really great feedback from them about this unit.” She has other activities and possible field trips planned throughout the upcoming weeks related to Black History Month, but TNCS elementary students will not soon forget their encounter with Frederick Douglass or with what it was like to follow the North Star with the fervent hope of reaching a better place.