by Callie Hawkins
For the last two decades, historic sites around the country have
been engaged in a steady, thoughtful discussion about slavery and race.
This conversation isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it happens
consistently and it happens with the authenticity and veracity that can
only happen in an old place, in a place where history happened and
history is preserved, and history is connected to the present. This year
the Preservation Leadership Forum blog takes a look at National Trust
Historic Sites and how their interpretation of slavery has evolved and
changed over the years. The full series is available here
At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we consider interpreting slavery a vital responsibility, and our training and education programs reflect that value. In Part I,
I examined age-based presentations of slavery that guide moral
development. Inculcating a strong sense of justice and emphasizing the
intrinsic value of human rights can help students of all ages take an
active, moral stand when they encounter modern-day inequity.
|Students from Baltimore, Maryland, express their feelings about the recent violence in their city. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage.
Whether we want to admit it or not, children are vulnerable to new forms of slavery and racial injustice.
One need not look very far to find examples of racial and social
injustice stemming from slavery. And, despite the fact that the 13th
Amendment ended legal slavery in the United States more than 150 years
ago, slavery still exists within our borders. Certain social
experiences, activities, or interpersonal relationships, as well as
persistent racial and gender inequity, can leave today’s youth
particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Historic sites provide
unparalleled context for modern challenges and offer safe spaces for
students to share feelings about their everyday experiences.
One month after police clashed with protesters over the death of
Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, The Cottage welcomed a Baltimore
City middle school on a trip that had previously been canceled due to
the violence in the city. Cottage staff and school administrators
believed that these students needed a safe place to express their
thoughts about what was happening in Baltimore. Just as Lincoln often
took to writing to help sort out his vision of America contrasted with
the country’s reality, these 8th graders were given the opportunity to
define their own visions and realities of Baltimore. Starting with the
prompt “I want people to know that Baltimore is…,” students were
encouraged to express themselves in a few words. Instead, many wrote
paragraphs. They detailed their frustration with the police and
protesters, revealed their anger at the mischaracterizations of their
city in the media, and outlined their own responsibility to make
Baltimore a better place.
Youth participants in Students Opposing Slavery strategize ways to take action against modern slavery. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage.
A primary goal of our interpretation of slavery to high school
students is helping them understand it as an ongoing issue that requires
big thinking and direct action, just as it did in Lincoln’s time. In
2013 the Cottage launched Students Opposing Slavery
(SOS), a grassroots youth engagement program that encourages students
to join the fight to end modern slavery. The cornerstone of SOS is the
annual Students Opposing Slavery International Summit, a week-long
summer program that engages high school students from around the world.
This program inspires youth from diverse backgrounds to build a modern,
international abolitionist network and movement. Throughout the summit,
youth participants work together to cultivate an understanding of modern
slavery; develop big ideas around ending it; and meet with antislavery
experts, including representatives from nonprofits and federal agencies
as well as survivors. This mix of experienced educators, working in
concert with partner organizations and content specialists, creates a
week of dynamic exercises, brainstorming sessions, and workshops
producing achievable action items.
Today there are active SOS chapters around the globe: from
Washington, DC, to Washington state, from Moldova to Myanmar. SOS uses
an innovative approach—introducing young people to a contemporary
problem with significant historical roots and providing them
opportunities to play an active role in solving it—that enables
participants to cultivate skills in historical and critical thinking,
empathy, and global engagement. The program won the 2016 American
Alliance of Museums EdCom Award for Excellence in Programming.
| The 2014 Students Opposing Slavery International Summit. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage.
Young people need to understand that real change comes through an actively engaged citizenry.
In a 2013 blog post, Professor Kim Pearson provided teachers and parents with strategies to tackle the subject of slavery with young people:
“…[It] is necessary to be open and honest about the
racism of the past and the present while also providing ‘children (and
adults) with a vision that change is possible.’ With this in mind, I
believe that it is also important to teach children about our journey as
a nation from slavery to freedom, the heinous treatment endured by
enslaved people, and the importance of becoming advocates and activists
who work toward continued progress in race relations.”
Like Pearson, staff at the Cottage believes that hearing the personal
stories of enslaved people who fought to secure greater rights not only
for themselves but also for others can be inspirational. And there is
power in learning about those abolitionists who fought against slavery
even though they were not directly affected by it. As a “museum of ideas,”
the cottage actively engages our youngest visitors in conversations
about slavery and emancipation by providing them opportunities to
explore valuable connections between the past and present. This focus on
ideas and action—rather than a historical lesson about a long-ago way
of life—provides an opening for guides armed with rich primary sources
to engage students on issues that have both deep historical roots and
extensive modern branches. Interpreting slavery to young people is vital
to developing the next generation of abolitionists and humanitarian
citizens; it furthers their moral development, provides valuable insight
into modern forms of slavery and racial inequality, and presents an
inspiring legacy of agency in the face of unspeakable violence.
Hannah Townsend’s Anti-Slavery Alphabet ends with a powerful
charge: “Y is for Youth—the time for all Bravely to war with sin; And
think not it can ever be Too early to begin. Z is a Zealous man,
sincere, Faithful, and just, and true; An earnest pleader for the
slave—Will you not be so too?” Surely there are countless other reasons
to interpret slavery to young people, but if you’re looking for one, let
this be your call to action. Society demands it, and our youth can
Callie Hawkins is the associate director for programs at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
#Interpretation #AfricanAmerican #Diversity #HistoricSites