I taught high school U.S. history for 17 years at a local parochial school before I came to Lansing. I was never instructed by the administration on how to teach the subject. No federal or state guidelines were mandated as to what approach should be taken to teach the subject. I was trusted only to practice what I was trained to do—to commit to teach the actual truth and not my interpretation of the truth. Because of that trust, I always honored that commitment.
Because the school was in the process of being integrated, I approached the history of the country before 1865 and that particular institution of slavery delicately. I concentrated on what was driving the economy of the southern states and why free labor was being used as a means to make the economy successful. I chose to take a view driven by what was happening north of the Mason-Dixon line and to the west as the country expanded. Black Americans were achieving great things in the North and that was important to remember.
I made my students understand that the process to eliminate the use of slavery culture was in a process of being stricken from the country. The word I used then was assimilation. America was being designed to be a melting pot of different races, creeds, and colors.
The legends of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were presented with a critical eye, but I also introduced the achievements of Black Americans. I emphasized that all citizens who were part of the process had reason to be proud. I made it understood that because of the foundation of what was being created, America would overcome the stain of slavery on the process. Both the Black and the White students were surprised and proud of what was achieved by their ancestors and how they worked together instead of being of one race or another-they were Americans first.
I learned later, in studies of race relations, that my approach was already formalized. David Barton in his book Setting the Record straight-American History in Black and White had already done what I was teaching.
Let me review only some of them and ask yourself if you knew any of them:
- Many of the soldiers who fought during the American Revolution were fully integrated with Black patriots, fighting and dying side-by-side with them as fellow soldiers and comrades.
- William Nell was an award-winning young law scholar in Boston during the 1830s. He became the first Black American to hold a post in the federal government.
- A slave boat arriving in the Massachusetts Colony was not allowed to disembark because the Colony wanted nothing to do with it. The officers were arrested and imprisoned, and the kidnapped Africans were returned to their country at the expense of the Colony.
- Frederick Douglass found his way to New York in 1838 and was promptly hired to work for the state’s anti-slavery society. He also served as a preacher at the Zion Methodist Church. After studying the U.S Constitution, he concluded that it was not a way to promote slavery but a glorious liberty document. He said, “Read the Preamble, and you will not find a word to promote slavery.”
- Following the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Congress expanded its fight to end slavery by passing the Northwest Ordinance. That law established how territories could become new states in the United States and forbade them from slavery.
- In 1809 Congress continued its fight against slavery by abolishing the slave trade ships from coming to the country.
- St. Thomas Church was established as the first Black church in Philadelphia in 1792.
A step backwards in the process was when the southern-based Democratic party began to obstruct what was developing. To remain as apolitical as possible I will only mention that the Democratic Congress passed a number of laws to impede the march to stamp out slavery.
Check for yourself the histories of the Missouri Compromise, Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision from the Supreme Court. Each of these should be studied before making statements about the history of slavery in the United States.
I would be happy to explore each of these issues further with all those interested.
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