‘It’s a matter of self-definition’: behind the first battle to teach black history in American schools | Books

In the decades before World War II, African American history taught in American public schools was remarkably backward and racist. The inferiority of blacks was assumed, Africa seen as a primitive land devoid of great civilizations, slavery as a necessary and benevolent institution, and blacks incapable of self-determination. Dismantling these lies written to serve white people in power has been the work of decades – in the first half of the 20th century, an entire generation of activists fought to transform the way Americans educated themselves about the black history, creating what has been called the “alternative black agenda”.

Among the most notable of these people was an educator named Madeline Morgan, who created a whole series of lessons for Chicago schools that corrected the record. Morgan’s work educated students about the civilizations from which the ancestors of black Americans originated, the true horrors of slavery, and the many contributions of black people to America past and present. Although she is not well remembered today, at the height of her success, Morgan’s educational interventions would become known around the world, being celebrated in Time magazine and discussed among powerful politicians and leaders. civics.

Morgan’s life and accomplishments are lovingly and assiduously chronicled in historian and educator Michael Hines’ new book, A Worthy Piece of Work. This powerful and passionate work of scholarship not only sheds light on an important but forgotten historical episode, it also teaches essential lessons for activists today. “Madeline’s demand that the curriculum reflect black humanity, black agency, black achievement, black skills and black intelligence are demands that continue to be groundbreaking,” Hines said. “We can see it in the work that organizations like Black Lives Matter are doing in schools today, or the demands of organizations like Facing History and Ourselves.”

A Worthy Piece of Work emerges, in part, from Hines’ own experiences as a K-12 teacher. A black teacher in a long line of black teachers, Hines had grown frustrated with omissions and errors in teaching materials around his community’s history. This got him noticed when he learned about Morgan through alumni, Black Chicago historians, and worked on his dissertation at Loyola University Chicago. “Learning about her work reaffirmed things I always felt as a student in history and social studies classes, and things I had felt as a teacher,” Hines said. . “To see that these conversations were much older than I thought was encouraging, and it gave me some affirmation and strength.”

Hines was initially skeptical that someone working before so many other advances in the civil rights struggle could do the work that Morgan had done. “At first I thought the 40s sounded too early,” he said, “being a decade before Brown v Board of Education, before the Afrocentric program.”

As A Worthy Piece of Work shows, there are some very good reasons why Morgan was able to succeed at such an early historical moment. Hines fascinatingly points out that, in part, Morgan’s work became so popular because white authorities at the time saw it as a way to ease racial tensions during World War II, helping to strengthen the war effort. In the summer of 1943, America experienced riots from coast to coast, initiated by white people threatened by the economic and social gains made by black communities. Morgan – characterized as a simple schoolteacher offering common sense revisions to black history – was raised as a non-threatening example of black progress and achievement. Likewise, his program was seen as a sure way to foster greater racial harmony, thus freeing up manpower to support battles overseas.

Michael Hines: “Progress is that fragile process. Photography: Holly Hernandez

However condescendingly the powers of the day approached Morgan’s work, Hines makes it clear that she had truly revolutionary intentions. Through his program, Morgan hoped to give black students reason to be proud of their heritage, help black people claim their rightful place in America, and help inoculate the white public against racist beliefs. “When you have an environment where everything from the highest scientific literature to nursery rhymes paints a negative image of black people,” Hines said, “what Madeleine comes up with is a counter-story that challenged all of that.”

Morgan’s story shows why it is essential for a community to be able to write its own history. Morgan and his colleagues writing the Black Alternative Agenda were trying to overturn false narratives written by outsiders to their community – narratives that were used to substantiate beliefs that blacks were naturally inferior to whites and had suffered no wrongdoing. historical. This could only be done by black people taking control of their own story and telling it honestly. “It’s about self-definition, the power to define yourself, your experience, to share your story, and not to let others dictate and define who you are,” Hines said.

Although Morgan’s work was incredibly successful, in the years following the end of World War II, the progress she made began to erode. Its teaching units were never seen as anything more than mere supplements to the traditional school curriculum, and it failed in its attempts to codify black history as a compulsory part of American history. As American politics drifted into the paranoia and conservatism of the Cold War years, Morgan’s program – once seen as a surefire way to ease racial tensions – would be seen as too revolutionary for a nation in danger of losing its soul. for the benefit of communism.

Despite the back and forth, Hines considers Morgan’s story inspiring and important. He stresses that the gains made by activists must be consolidated and protected, as they can be undone. It also shows that while the battle for progress may be long and uncertain, change for the better is happening. “The main takeaway from Madeline’s learning is that progress is this fragile process,” Hines said. “It’s not guaranteed, but it is possible. It is important, as historians, to remind people that history does not go one way toward justice. These battles must be fought and won again and again.