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How to Teach History in a Community Still Reckoning With Its Past

For Whitney Coonradt, a social studies teacher at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, the best description of her feelings on January 6 was “unsurprised shock.” For almost two decades, Coonradt has been teaching her students about the “buried” history of the Wilmington insurrection of 1898, when armed white supremacists terrorized and murdered Black residents and overthrew the local government. As my colleague Edwin Rios wrote: “The Wilmington insurrection was, unlike the Capitol siege last week, immediately successful.”

Coonradt grew up in Concord, about 200 miles from Wilmington, and heard rumors of KKK rallies down the road from her house. As she started looking at images of insurrectionists storming the Capitol and documenting it online last month, she remembered a photo of the Wilmington mob posing in front of the burnt building of a Black-owned newspaper. She asked herself: Is this really where we are?

The day after the riot, Coonradt showed her 10th graders in World History and seniors in American History images of the Capitol under siege: members of Congress lying on the floor, a man carrying the Confederate flag, another sitting in the vice president’s chair and holding a cellphone. “You can look at 1898 and talk about why do you think they’re standing in front of this burnt, vandalized building, taking a picture and self-promoting it,” Coonradt says. “And then open for a wider discussion saying well, how does that relate to things now?” She asked her students to share their feelings about the images from January 6. A few were supportive of or even made excuses for the rioters. Others reflected on the disparate treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. 

Her conversations with students come at a time when North Carolina is debating the implementation of new standards for social studies in public schools for the first time since 2010. One change was logistical: Lawmakers mandated two classes, American History 1 and 2, be consolidated into one to allow for a personal finances course. “They’re spending a year debating how important history is and it’s the course they’re making smaller,” Coonradt says. The decision has made teachers like Coonradt concerned that high school students soon will have access to less comprehensive American history education.

Other revisions that were more meaningful in terms of content have created even more backlash. Proposed changes to the standards aimed at promoting “inclusion of multiple voices”—such as explicit language about slavery, segregation, and voter suppression, as well as references to gender identity and marginalized groups—have been met with resistance by conservative members of the state’s board of education, including Republican Mark Robinson, North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor. They charge that the changes are divisive and could foster “anti-American feelings.” The conflict has made teachers like Coonradt concerned that high school students soon will have access to less comprehensive American history education. “It’s a very interesting time for a standards renewal in a very politically divided state,” Coonradt says. 

I caught up with Coonradt when she was between classes and in her planning period to talk about the history of her community, the challenges of being a social studies teacher, and the importance of history.

On the racial disconnect in her community about historical events: I’ve been at New Hanover for 18 years—my whole career. It’s basically a 100-year-old school so it has a long history. New Hanover is within a five-minute walk to our local history museum and an antebellum house that has a preserved slave quarter. After reintegration, the school became very diverse, and it’s a big heart of this community.

Our community does a program called One Book, One Community. The second year, we read Blood Done, Sign My Name about the lynching of a man in Oxford, North Carolina, and we hosted the author Dr. Timothy Tyson in our high school campus. He’s white, and he talks about how his father got a job as a minister in Wilmington in the 70’s as it was desegregating. He was part of the more progressive movement, and they would have these community meetings with Black and white people and there seemed to be this big elephant in the room. There was just a really different collective memory of 1898. For the African American community, it was still this large, looming scar, and the white community literally didn’t even know what had happened. It had just been erased. There was this disconnect in the community.

Read entire article at Mother Jones