We know so little about the enslaved populations of America. Take the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. It is possible to put names on some of the estimated 650 folks we have lost to the institution's impersonal catalog. Mount Vernon has worked hard to tell deeper stories about some of these souls that may lead us to catch glimpses of their faces among the wheat sheaves and on the fishing boats dotting the Potomac of 1799. But so much of the collective human experience will never be known. This is true with the overwhelming and gut wrenching majority of the estimated 12.5 million Africans who were chained to the hulls of boats for four months in order to spend their lives in forced labor. Much of what we know of these people is reduced to empirical data, to numbers on a ledger that we can piece together in an abysmal testament to the potential depravity of humanity. Occasionally, we can present this information in ways that may capture our attention, but data belies the humanity of the issue.
Trying to humanize these people has not been without challenges. This chapter in human history is debated with much anger as it is hard for us to grapple with the practice... one that placed the industrial revolution squarely on the back of African and black bodies, bodies that were bent and broken to fuel demand for a mostly white consumer. (The thesis about the industrial revolution; that it was created by a historical demand for cotton was posited and defended in an amazing book by Edward Baptiste. Sydney Mintz tackles the commodity's predecessor and contemporary, sugar.) This void in the history books is what brought me to Mount Vernon for the George Washington Teacher Institute on Slavery in Washington's World.
Drive around Mount Vernon, and you will run across vestiges of the plantation of George Washington. Quander Road and Quander Road School are named for the Quander family. This family traces their lineage back to Nancy Carter Quander, who was manumitted in 1801 by Martha Washington as directed in George Washington's will. Gum Springs Museum is nearby, which was founded by freedman West Ford and commemorates a dynamic black community that surrounds the former estate. These are connections to the past and present that are easily ignored or missed. The GWTI residential program gave me the opportunity to deeply explore the connections in my neighborhood with some amazing scholars on the topic.
My motivation was simple: as a transplant to the Northern Virginia community, I am dazzled by the historical treasures that leap off the pages off my teacher's text and unfold in my daily travels around the area. It is a little gift. But the community in and around these treasures are changing: the locals who grew up here are hidden from sight to the typical transient commuter who flies by on their way to work and play. The students I have in my classroom look at our region with the eyes of a foreigner: the history seems disconnected and dismembered for most, almost sterilized in a way that leads my students to believe that things have changed completely, that local history has minimal bearing on contemporary local problems, and that they can skip through these profound historical legacies because it is, well... a thing of the past. It seems a minor detour into a time that we can all agree was a bad time... but we don't feel the impact. I think it is because we do not know where to look.
I came to Mount Vernon to make history a visceral experience, and to re-connect my students back to this historic property and the narrative we know of George Washington. In less than a month I will ask my history students to rethink our local history, to ask critical questions about how we have structured space and place, what we are saying when we do or do not spend money on commemorating our past, what our understandings of complex human stories can tell us about who we are today and who we want to be tomorrow. I am going to ask them to be historians of their own community and capture stories like this one and more to curate the past we do and do not know. History crosses all content areas; and helps us connect ourselves into our best selves (I will share my C3 lesson at the end of this review).
Walking through two worlds
The resources and experiences offered at Mount Vernon were so powerful that the work done to honor the enslaved persons on the estate helps students begin to see storylines that my textbook does no justice to. The 317 enslaved persons' lives that were shattered apart at George Washington's death are teased out in so many amazing and varied ways... each allowing kids to examine the complexity of a time period which elicits so many strong emotions. As a person walking through this property, I struggled (and still struggle) with how best to address this sweeping time period in American history. But it is in sharp contrast to the question posed by Richard Josey of the Minnestoa Historical Society... what kind of an ancestor do you want to be? Without minimizing the immorality of slavery in drawing contemporary parallels, there are several issues that we confront today that we (mostly) acknowledge as deeply problematic yet fail to respond to appropriately.
Mount Vernon introduced us to several amazing resources:
I walked out of Mount Vernon with over 3000 pages of documents and several books very high on my reading list. To say that I was blown away by the tenor of the discussions, the ability to ask difficult questions, engage in dialogue to try, and find a way to moderate student inquiry on this topic is minimizing my experience over a four day window.
Implementing in the classroom
It goes without saying that I will be using this throughout the year in my history classes. While the content spans throughout the year in my US History classroom, I really see it adding context to a local history project that culminates my student's experiences throughout the year. So much of what was offered by way of historical resources as well as ideas of how to present these ideas was shared. I hope that the content and discussion skills I picked up at GWTI will empower my students to tackle unique issues we experience in our community, and connect them back to the place and space of our history. So much of our history has global implications, so I know that this will generate ideas that come from abroad, too. Tucking our community into the local and global issues at hand will offer my students the ability to share unique stories.
I have collected these ideas and resources into a C3 project template that can be adapted to include the resources of your community. I have yet to roll this out in my classroom, but I am excited to see where my students go with the project and will certainly share when I have projects posted. Take these ideas and adapt them, and definitely check out Mount Vernon. They have several teacher institutes that are guaranteed to please.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan