Was Abraham Lincoln considered a hero? How can we effectively remember Confederate soldiers, or should we even do so? Where is the line drawn between acknowledging the problematic aspects of our past and celebrating them? These are the complex questions that a group of nearly twenty teachers from across the United States grappled with during a week-long program this summer. The program, organized by the Ford’s Theatre Society, focuses on the remembrance of the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout American history. This professional development training, which started in 2015, has grown increasingly significant in light of recent events. Following a mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, and a violent rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, over 100 Confederate monuments have been removed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Furthermore, numerous public schools have changed their names to distance themselves from Confederate leaders.
These efforts to remove Confederate symbols have sparked controversy, and it is history teachers who find themselves at the forefront of these difficult conversations. "Teachers are expected to be objective authorities, but the truth is that we all respond to the world around us," says Alexandria Wood, the education programs manager at the Ford’s Theatre Society. "We make choices about the stories we tell and how we tell them… It’s extremely challenging and overwhelming to delve into this history, especially with limited time and the multitude of perspectives." Wood adds that many teachers face opposition from administrators and parents when addressing sensitive topics such as the removal of Confederate statues. "How can we possibly remain neutral? This subject is anything but neutral," Wood argues. The training program aims to support teachers in navigating these difficult historical themes, encouraging them to bravely explore this non-neutral territory and teach students not what to think, but how to think. However, Wood acknowledges that questioning one’s own beliefs is no easy task, as it brings doubt and unanswerable questions, creating a discomfort that is hard to live with.
During the professional development program, teachers have the opportunity to visit various monuments and memorials in the Washington area, including the African American Civil War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. The goal of these tours is to equip teachers with the tools necessary to engage in challenging conversations about the nation’s violent history. In addition, teachers receive tangible resources such as primary sources on the Civil War and Reconstruction, lesson strategies, and pedagogical techniques. Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War historian and educator who facilitates the Ford’s Theatre training, emphasizes the importance of understanding this time period. Levin explains that the era of Reconstruction, which followed the end of the Civil War and saw the granting of rights to freed men and women but also the implementation of restrictive laws called "black codes" in the Southern states, is often overlooked in schools. Many teachers who have participated in the program have expressed that they did not learn much about this period during their own education. However, Levin stresses that the events of that time laid the foundation for the civil rights movement and continue to resonate today. When teachers are well-informed about this history, they feel more confident in leading discussions around these complex issues. Levin acknowledges that deliberations regarding the removal of Confederate monuments are filled with controversy, noting that these questions have remained dormant for so long that now they have come to the forefront, demanding attention regardless of the controversy that may ensue.
In conclusion, the conversations surrounding Civil War monuments and the remembrance of this period in American history require careful consideration and thoughtfulness. History teachers play a vital role in navigating these difficult discussions and must strive to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the nation’s past, encouraging critical thinking and questioning of their own beliefs. By equipping teachers with the knowledge and resources necessary to address these complex topics, programs like the one offered by the Ford’s Theatre Society contribute to a more nuanced understanding of history and its ongoing impact on society.
"My objective … is to educate [students] about context and perspective, and to show them that no individual is simply good or bad," expressed Lauren Sonka, a social studies teacher for 7th and 8th graders from Midland, Texas, during the conversation. Subsequently, the instructors from Ford’s Theatre guided the teachers in closely examining Douglass’ speech commemorating Lincoln. Douglass had delivered this speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in 1876. In his speech, Douglass praised Lincoln as a "remarkable and virtuous man" who "liberated us from enslavement," but he also labeled Lincoln as "the president for the white man," someone who was willing to prioritize the welfare of white people in this country by denying, postponing, and sacrificing the rights of colored individuals. The teachers collaborated in small groups to rephrase portions of Douglass’ speech into modern-day English—a skill they can later impart to their students to aid in understanding Douglass’ words. They analyzed the subtleties of the speech and explored Douglass’ portrayal of Lincoln. Shanon Blosch, an 8th grade English and history teacher from Ammon, Idaho, expressed in an interview that she already incorporates Douglass’ "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" speech in her classroom. "My students really appreciate the language he uses, his straightforwardness," she explained. "It hits them hard, and I observe their discomfort. … My students often say, ‘I feel guilty.’ It’s not about feeling guilty, it’s about feeling uncomfortable, being aware so that you can share the narrative as you move forward."
‘Tricky Historical Accounts’
At the Emancipation Memorial, Levin provided a brief history lesson to the teachers. According to him, this statue was the first to depict an African American, and it represents Archer Alexander, a former slave who managed to escape. Levin emphasized that Alexander liberated himself, but the positioning of the statue shows him at the feet of the president.
After taking some time for contemplation, the teachers recited a portion of Douglass’ speech that he delivered during the dedication of the statue. The training facilitators noted that it can be impactful for students to hear these words spoken aloud. The teachers may leave their week-long professional development with more questions than they had before, but Wood from the Ford’s Theatre Society hopes that they will feel more confident in facilitating nuanced discussions about America’s troubled past and its current remembrance. Many teachers, particularly those who teach younger students, often wonder, "How can I tackle these frightening and violent difficult historical events?" she remarked. "But you can. I hope that our teachers feel empowered to do so after this week." Blosch mentioned that there are very few Confederate statues in Idaho, and her primarily white students have limited exposure to these conversations. She stated that this professional development program will provide her with a strong foundation to lead classroom discussions about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ongoing national debate surrounding the removal of monuments. "I’m thrilled about this opportunity to broaden their thinking and provide them with a broader perspective of their country," she stated. "To me, the highest compliment my students can pay me is when they tell me, ‘I never saw it from this angle before.’"