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An Immersive Examination of Black American History

During the first three weeks of the winter trimester, all students taking a Westminster history course participated in a shared, immersive and sustained examination of Black American history. During nine class meetings, students examined eight case studies dealing with specific issues of Black history in America. Teachers used the lesson plans as resources for their classes, combining and connecting to their own content and syllabi.
The eight case studies were organized in four pairs, addressing issues of anti-Blackness and responses to anti-Blackness. Several lesson plans were accompanied by a short video featuring an eminent scholar of Black history with particular expertise in the area.
The four lesson-plan pairs of the curriculum included a close examination of the compromises that led to the institutionalization of slavery in the U.S. Constitution contrasted with the history of antebellum resistance and rebellion by enslaved people; the efforts of the freedmen to build new lives and communities during Reconstruction and the emerging national leadership of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and others at the end of the 19th century; the remarkable story of “Black Wall Street,” which led to the Tulsa pogrom of 1921, and the power and influence of the Harlem Renaissance; and the structural and systemic racism of the post-1945 era, which fueled the civil rights movement and continues today through many forms of contemporary activism.
As part of the curriculum, students and faculty attended a webinar Dec. 14 featuring Allison Dorsey, professor of history at Swarthmore College, who is a scholar of Reconstruction and, specifically, the experience of the freedmen – formerly enslaved, newly freed Americans – after the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Part of her research has examined the efforts of Lancaster King, a formerly enslaved person who fought for the Union in the Civil War and his family to secure a federal pension and land ownership. During her presentation about her work, she spoke about the experiences of King and Mustapha Shaw, another freedman, in Georgia in a talk titled “Race, Wills and ‘Family’: Securing Land and Opportunity in Redeemed Georgia.” She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in American history from the University of California, Irvine. Following her presentation, she responded to a number of questions.
In addition, all history students and faculty received a copy of James Baldwin’s book “The Fire Next Time,” thanks to the generosity of the Griffith Family Foundation. Students read and discussed the book in classes, and the faculty had a “book club” meeting the final week of the classes and will use the book as the basis for faculty discussion and professional development this winter.
“The goal of this curriculum was to encourage students and participating faculty to think and rethink the history of Black Americans,” said Charlie Griffith, head of the Westminster History Department. “We consciously sought to ‘disrupt the narrative,’ and build an understanding that Black history is American history – not an adjunct or an add-on. In the past, we have treated Black history more cursorily, and this program allowed our students to carefully consider these issues in an intensive, meaningful way. Moving forward, this curriculum and its materials will be curated and archived and used by teachers every year in a variety of classes and contexts.”
Leading up to the winter trimester, Erin Corbett ’95 worked broadly with the History Department beginning last summer and into the fall helping it audit its overall curriculum. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College, where she studied psychology and education. She then earned an MBA from Post University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a longtime and passionate advocate for the poor, women and people of color. Currently, she is the founder and CEO of Second Chance Educational Alliance in Bloomfield, Conn., an education-focused community reintegration initiative for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. “Erin was an invaluable resource to the History Department this year as we critically examined all of our courses with the goal of addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Charlie. “That process inspired me during the fall and over Thanksgiving break to design and implement the examination of Black American history curriculum for the beginning of the winter trimester.”

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