State History and African American History

An Interdisciplinary Civil Rights Approach

Elizabeth Anne Yeager, Frans H. Doppen, Elizabeth B. Otani Many researchers have explored the powerful impact of children's literature on students' interest in learning and their thoughtful inquiry into issues of cultural diversity.1 In an integrated social studies and language arts curriculum, the goals of developing multicultural understanding and encouraging students to become analytical and imaginative readers converge when teachers use multicultural children's literature in the study of history.
Perez-Stable and Cordier argue that the integration of children's literature with United States history is an excellent way to "bring the time and place of historical events...and the stories of the diverse peoples of the United States...within the understanding" of young people.2 Through their explorations of the past, young students may come to understand historical significance; historical concepts, such as change, power, justice, conflict, and leadership; and the "continuous process of history with its multiple causes and effects."3 But, the authors assert, these concepts must be combined with multicultural diversity and understanding if students are to fully comprehend United States history. Violet Harris, author of a comprehensive guide to teaching with multicultural literature in grades K-8,4 advocates calling special attention to the achievements of African-American authors of children's literature, including both history and historical fiction.

This article describes how two middle school teachers-one in social studies and one in language arts-incorporated the study of state history into their courses on African-American history and language arts. Their goal was to teach about the historical struggle of African Americans for freedom and equality in Florida. They based the state history component of their course on the children's book, African Americans in Florida,5 by Maxine D. Jones and Kevin McCarthy, an African American history professor and an Anglo-American English professor respectively at the University of Florida. Their book addresses the issues raised above by broadening the scope of traditional history and extending the study of African-Americans beyond "Black History Month."

African Americans in Florida is an effective model for an exploration of state history that focuses on African-Americans, and can be used as a guide by teachers searching for similar books elsewhere. The book is helpful because of its breadth; it explores 400 years of African American history, beginning with the arrival of Ponce de Leon in 1513, and examines how major events in which African Americans were key figures-such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement-played out in Florida. The book discusses major historical events unique to the state, and how these affected the lives of African Americans living there. And, it features numerous profiles of African Americans prominent as political, military, educational, business, and civic leaders.

The reading level of the book is well-suited to middle school students because of its accessible vocabulary level, short and concise chapters, and frequent illustrations and discussion questions within each chapter. It is rich in historical sources that invite student analysis: drawings, photographs, documents, letters, charts, graphs, maps, diagrams, advertisements, and excerpts from speeches, song lyrics, poems, and essays. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the teachers selected the book because it depicts African Americans as people taking charge of their lives rather than acting as victims.

The substance of the book-themes, topics, sources and stories-facilitates the articulation of goals for middle school social studies and language arts curricula. Certainly, the curriculum calls for students to understand the uniqueness of the African American experience in the United States and Florida, and the contributions African Americans have made to state and U. S. history. Moreover, both the social studies and language arts curricula call for all students at the school-themselves culturally and ethnically diverse and representative of a cross-section of North Central Florida's population-to develop a personal interpretation of what it means to be African American in this state and country. The curriculum also encompasses the efforts of African Americans to fully realize the rights and benefits of American citizenship. More broadly, it encourages students to become more committed to building racial harmony in their personal lives as well as in the larger society.

The Curriculum in the Classroom
The two teachers in our study each worked with the same group of about 25 middle school students in their respective classrooms. The language arts teacher began with a pretest survey to assess students' knowledge of why African American history had been a neglected topic in schools for many years, understanding of the meaning of "civil rights," and beliefs about racial equality in their state. Students were also asked to name three major African Americans in the history of their state, and one in the history of their community. After the pretest survey, the social studies teacher began the state history unit, using the book by Jones and McCarthy as the basis for the curriculum. After completing the unit on African Americans in their state's history, the students retook the survey.

The pretest revealed several interesting findings. First, and not surprisingly, students had great difficulty naming key figures in the history of their state. Second, responses to the question of why African American history had been neglected for so long focused on the ideas that African Americans had been slaves, that they were regarded as inferior to whites, that they had been segregated in many ways, and that "whites wrote the history books."

Students' understandings of the meaning of "civil rights" were somewhat vague; most defined the concept as "the rights that everyone should have" with little elaboration on what those rights were, or on the racial and historical context for their definitions. Students' beliefs about the current status of racial equality in their state were also vague and uncertain; many said they did not know how to determine whether racial equality had been achieved, and were unsure about the meaning of this concept. Clearly, the students needed to achieve an understanding of civil rights and equality, based on appropriate historical context, in order to come to meaningful conclusions about these concepts today.

In the social studies class, students read and discussed chapters from the book each day, then answering questions-both from the book and from their teacher-that focused on the development of historical understanding. The nature of the questions correlated with recent research on the teaching and learning of history and "historical thinking."6 This research emphasizes the importance of teaching students to use a variety of primary and secondary sources, to become familiar with the types of questions and methodologies that historians use, to empathize with historical figures, and to analyze and evaluate historical issues and problems. The questions, therefore, were of four general types:

Informational. For example, What did the Supreme Court decide in Plessy v. Ferguson? What colleges and universities were established in Florida for African-American students? Why did runaway slaves go to Florida?
Empathetic. For example, Why do you think Virgil Hawkins wanted to enter law school so badly? If you had lived at the time of the Civil War and had a lot of money, how could you have spent that money to help the ex-slaves? What are some ways to handle a racial slur when you hear one?
Methodological. This involved the description and analysis of, for example, slave advertisements, plantation records, a newspaper illustration of a captured cargo of slaves being unloaded in Key West, and a photograph of an African-American civil rights leader during a bus boycott.
Analytical/evaluative. For example, What are the arguments for and against the death penalty? Why are boycotts often successful? What parts of your town's history do you think should be in a play or novel someday? If you were going to establish a Black Archives Research Center and Museum, what would you include in the collection? What are the advantages and disadvantages of busing children across town to try and integrate schools? How should the federal government fight the Ku Klux Klan? Why was Brown v. Board of Education so significant in this state?
Holding a Mock Trial
In the language arts class, the teacher emphasized reading and dramatic role playing from the book. The focal point of the unit was the organization of a mock trial in which students were to determine whether civil rights for African-Americans had been achieved in the state. An integral part of preparation for the mock trial was co-author Kevin McCarthy's visit to the classroom, during which he talked with students about his reasons for writing African Americans in Florida.7 After this visit, and further reading and analysis of the historical characters in the book, each student selected a role in the trial. They played judges, lawyers, educators, business people, farmers, advocates, and slaves-testifying for either the "prosecution" or the "defense." The roles of the judges and attorneys were also selected from among the famous figures described in the book. Because the book described these individuals vividly yet concisely, the students had ample material for use in adopting their characters' perspectives without being overwhelmed by extraneous details.

During the trial, "witnesses" were examined and cross-examined by both the "defense lawyers" and the "prosecution," while "judges" monitored their courtroom conduct. The students played their parts eagerly, moving beyond both the book and classroom discussions to their perceptions of how the characters portrayed might feel and think about the issues of the trial. In the trial, students heard "testimony" about the Rosewood Massacre, the 1923 burning of an African American community in which a number of residents were killed (and which is the subject of an upcoming film by John Singleton). They also heard "testimony" about Ku Klux Klan violence; about various cases of discrimination against African Americans in the legal, educational, and political systems; and about the views of African Americans who achieved prominence in different fields of endeavor.

The "jury" eventually ruled that the state had indeed made progress on the issue of civil rights and equality for African Americans. Although students demonstrated throughout the trial that they understood the injustices and brutalities of past treatment of African Americans in the state, they decided to give more weight to the state's record on civil rights in the more recent past. They also cited what they considered to be an improvement in people's attitudes about racial equality, and expressed feelings of optimism about the future of race relations.

Following the trial, the language arts teacher directed the students to write essays in which they reviewed the trial's highlights and explained why they agreed or disagreed with the verdict. Students also took the post-test survey described earlier, answering questions about their knowledge of African American leaders, their understanding of the term "civil rights," and their view of the status of racial equality in their state.

The post-test revealed, not surprisingly, that students could name key figures in the history of their state. In general, responses to the question of why African American history was so long neglected showed little change from before studying the unit, except for mention that "society is changing" and more opportunities exist to learn about African American history.

More importantly, students' understandings of the concept of "civil rights" were more refined after the unit, and more students attended to the historical and racial context of this term. Some of the responses were as follows:

Civil rights are when everybody is treated equally or when there are no rules that apply to any one race in particular.
Since all people are "created equal," there are rights to make sure this is true.
The rights a person has in their community and the power to use those rights.
The right to be treated equally and to have equal opportunity.
Civil rights are when every U. S. citizen, no matter if you are black or white, is free in the United States of America.
The freedom for any person to vote, to decide to live where they want to and not to be harmed.
Rights that ensure equal treatment among the races.
Finally, students' beliefs about the current status of racial equality in their state became more focused, with some disagreement over the extent to which such equality exists. Students were better able to explain why they believed as they did, even if they were ambivalent about the issue. Some of the responses included the following:

I believe that there is racial equality in Florida and there isn't. The government has tried to treat everyone equally, but the government isn't always the people. It's the people who make up Florida and some people haven't given other people racial equality.
No. Many people of every race have been discriminated against. Even though the KKK is not part of the government, the people in the KKK want to take away other people's civil rights and they still try to do it.
Yes, I believe there are civil rights in Florida, in schools, courts, restaurants, etc. In our schools today most everyone has a certain amount of friends who are black.
There are no restaurants or places that say "whites only" anymore. There are individual people who are racist, but there is equality in Florida.
Yes, because blacks are no longer second-class citizens here. They have all the rights that whites do.
I think there still isn't racial equality here. On the news or in the paper there is always an African American being blamed for something, just like before... Whites still lock their car doors when they see an African American person walk by, or the white clerks pay special attention to blacks that walk in the store. These things still happen to a certain extent.
No. Blacks are a minority, so since there are fewer of them it would not be very probable that there could be racial equality. We have come a great long way, though, and people are starting to be treated like people now. I still think there is a gap to be bridged. On the surface it may seem equal but deep beneath it isn't.
Clearly, the focus of this curriculum helped students in these middle-school classrooms gain understandings of civil rights and equality seen from an African American perspective. Such understandings are appropriate and necessary in American society, given the powerful historical context of the African American experience throughout the country. Additional study of the struggle for civil rights and equality by other groups in American society-groups based on other ethnicities, gender, or sexual orientation, for example-constitutes an important "next step" in order to provide students with an even fuller picture of what equality and civil rights mean for diverse groups in the United States today.

1.Shirley Koeller, "Multicultural Understanding Through Literature" in Social Education 60, No. 2 (1966), 99-103; Carol Booth Olson, ed., Reading, Thinking, and Writing About Multicultural Literature (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1966); James A. Banks, Multi-Ethnic Education: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994); Maria A. Perez-Stable and Mary Hurlbut Cordier, Understanding American History Through Children's Literature: Instructional Units and Activities for Grades K-8 (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1994); Violet J. Harris, Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 (Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1992); Linda Levstik, "Research Directions: Mediating Content Through Literary Texts" in Language Arts 67 (1990), 848-853; "The Relationship Between Historical Response and Narrative in a Sixth Grade Classroom" in Theory and Research in Social Education 14 (1986), 1-15; L. D. Labbo and S. L. Field, "Bookalogues: Celebrating Culturally Diverse Families" in Language Arts 72 (1995), 52-60.
2.Perez-Stable and Cordier, Understanding American History Through Children's Literature.
3.Ibid., ix.
4.Harris, Teaching Multicultural History in Grades K-8.
5.Maxine D. Jones and Kevin McCarthy, African Americans in Florida (Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1993).
6.Linda Levstik and Christine Pappas, "Exploring the Development of Historical Understanding" in Journal of Research and Development in Education 21 (1987),1-15; Matthew T. Downey and Linda Levstik, "Teaching and Learning in History: The Research Base" in Social Education 52 (1988), 336-342; Samuel S. Wineburg and Suzanne M. Wilson, "Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History" in Phi Delta Kappan (September 1988), 50-58; David A. Welton, "Teaching History: A Perspective on Factual Details" in Social Education (October 1990), 348-350; Samuel S. Wineburg, "On the Reading of Historical Texts:Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy" in American Educational Research Journal 28 (1991), 495-519; David Kobrin, Ed Abbott, John Ellinwood, and David Horton, "Learning History by Doing History" in Social Education 57, 4 (1993), 39-41; Margaret G. McKeown and Isabel L. Beck, "Making Sense of Accounts of History: Why Young Students Don't and How They Might" in Gaea Leinhardt, ed., Teaching and Learning in History (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994), 1-26.

About the Authors
Elizabeth Anne Yeager is Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Florida.
Frans H. Doppen is a secondary school social studies teacher.
Elizabeth B. Otani is a secondary school language arts teacher at P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School, University of Florida.