In teaching about race at a community college in introductory American history courses, you get used to students saying that they are learning things that they had never encountered before in their previous history classes. This is even more true for issues of race in American history, especially in teaching at a majority white institution (although that has actually become less true than when I started 14 years ago).
I wanted to give an example here of one assignment that I give my students in my hybrid courses. It introduces students to a portion of American history that is usually left out. I will admit that I had not even heard about it through my own undergraduate and graduate education. However, I have come to believe that you cannot understand any of the ongoing racial issues in our country today, especially those between African Americans and police, if you are unaware of what happened in the period after emancipation and especially after Reconstruction.
As a side note, for those of you who might not be interested in looking at a full assignment, I urge you to go and either watch the documentary Slavery by Another Name and/or read the book Slavery by Another Name. It is such a fundamental part of understanding American racial history, but I find that I am introducing it for the first time to most people who I mention it to. So, even if you don’t want to delve into what I have below here, do yourself a favor and go watch it. I cannot link it directly, as PBS has made the decision not to offer it streaming on their website anymore. However, a quick YouTube search will give you numerous places to watch it. I am not endorsing bypassing the source of the documentary itself, but I have never understood why they can’t offer their documentaries on their website for viewing, especially one as fundamental as this one. I had our library purchase it so that my students can always have a stable place to see the documentary.
For those of you who would like to see what one of my assignments looks like for my hybrid course, I have included the one that is based around Slavery by Another Name here. This is what my students see for their first week of my HIST 1302 hybrid course. I am leaving out the link to the documentary that is in the assignment, and you can see the previous paragraph as to why.
Week 2 Activity
Skills for Week 2
For Week 2 of HIST 1302, we are going to start with a continuation of the last topic in HIST 1301. We will look at what happens in the South with the end of Reconstruction and how slave-like conditions would continue well into the twentieth century.
Week 2 is aimed at the following core competencies for history as developed by the American Historical Association:
- Build historical knowledge.
- Gather and contextualize information in order to convey both the particularity of past lives and the scale of human experience.
- Recognize how humans in the past shaped their own unique historical moments and were shaped by those moments.
- Develop a body of historical knowledge with breadth of time and place—as well as depth of detail—in order to discern context.
- Develop historical methods.
- Recognize history as an interpretive account of the human past—one that historians create in the present from surviving evidence.
- Practice ethical historical inquiry that makes use of and acknowledges sources from the past as well as the scholars who have interpreted that past.
- Develop empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments
- Recognize the provisional nature of knowledge, the disciplinary preference for complexity, and the comfort with ambiguity that history requires.
- Describe past events from multiple perspectives.
- Explain and justify multiple causes of complex events and phenomena using conflicting sources.
- Use historical perspective as central to active citizenship.
- Apply historical knowledge and historical thinking to contemporary issues.
Overview of the Week’s Assignment
For a period of nearly eighty years, between the Civil War and World War II, Southern blacks were no longer slaves, but they were not yet free. Generations of black Southerners lived in the shadow and under the threat of being forced to labor against their will.
Legally, slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, “except as a punishment for crime,” and even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, many Southern states began enacting a series of laws intended to re-subjugate newly freed blacks and provide cheap sources of labor. Vagrancy, loitering, riding the rails, changing jobs, even talking too loudly in public — these behaviors and more — all became crimes carrying stiff fines or sentences. Although these statutes made no mention of race, Southerners knew that they were intended as instruments of white control. The result was a huge increase in the numbers of blacks arrested and convicted.
Peonage or debt slavery, an illegal but widespread practice, flourished. Many black men were picked up for these minor crimes or on trumped-up charges. When faced with staggering fines and court fees, these men were then forced to work for a local employer who would pay their fines for them.
Others were victims of laws that made it a crime to leave employment for another job, keeping many blacks working under intolerable conditions as sharecroppers or elsewhere, rather than face the terrifying possibility of being arrested and sent to a forced labor camp. In other cases, workers would become indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans) merchants (through credit) or company stores (through living expenses). The workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves continuously forced to work without pay.
Convict leasing, a form of forced labor that was legal, occurred in concert with Southern state and county governments. These governments realized they could lease their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding — thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases.
The victims of forced labor were disproportionately black and poor. Ostensibly developed as a social solution to prison costs or insolvent debtors, in reality, forced labor was tightly bound to systems of racial oppression, and its abolishment accompanied the growth of a greater public concern for fairness and equality.
Additionally, the history of forced labor in the South is connected to a number of major events in American history ranging from Reconstruction to the New Deal. Today, forced labor, in various forms, continues to exist around the world.
While all of Chapter 18 is assigned for reading this week, the Weekly Activity is specifically focused around the sections on the South. You should reread and concentrate on pages 356-61 as a general background before viewing the video linked below. You also should read the lecture for this week, especially the first three lecture points, “The End of Reconstruction,” “The New South,” and “Jim Crow.”
For more specific background on the ideas discussed in the video, you can also refer to the following webpages for more information:
Here is the documentary: (documentary link removed)
The documentary is 90 minutes long and will stream directly through your browser.
While you are watching the video, I would like you to consider the following questions. You do not have to submit answers to these questions to me, but they will help you be prepared for what we are going to discuss in class.
- In what forms has forced labor been practiced in the past?
- How is the forced labor that was practiced in the American South after the Civil War connected to broader American history?
- What impacts did the use of forced labor have in the American South? Do these impacts continue to affect us today?
Before-Class Writing Assignment
To prepare for class, you need to submit a 250-word response to the Canvas classroom. You can find the submission link on the Week 2 Assignments page. You can either enter the response in the text box or upload a response in one of the following formats: .txt, .rtf, .doc, or .docx.
Access the following short videos to guide you in writing your submission:
- Reflections on Peonage – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Kate Willis and her cousin Susan Burnore, descendants of John Williams, a plantation owner who practiced peonage. In this clip Willis, who wrote a high school paper about peonage and her family’s connection to it, defines the practice as well as discusses how it operated and how it differs from slavery. The clip is about a minute and a half long.
- Reflections on Robert Franklin – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Robert Corley, a descendant of Robert N. Franklin, a white shop owner who benefited from forced labor. Here, Corley, an historian, talks about how he felt to find out about his great-grandfather’s role in the illegal practice. Corley discusses John Davis, a 23-year-old black sharecropper who after encountering Franklin, was fraudulently charged, imprisoned, and subsequently forced into labor while traveling in Alabama. As an historian, Corley also provides context regarding forced labor and racial attitudes of the time. The clip is about five minutes long.
- The System at Work – In this book excerpt from the book Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon writes about how an intricate system of forced labor, supported by local criminal justice systems, operated in the American South, by examining the inner workings of the farm of John Pace, who used forced labor. The audio excerpt is about two and a half minutes long.
Using the materials presented here, your response for this week is on the following topic: I am fairly certain that you have never heard of any of this before, as it is not a topic generally covered at all (outside of sharecropping). What is your initial reaction to it? Why do you think it is something that is generally not discussed or remembered? How has it affected racial relations in the American South through today? Please use specific examples from the background information, documentary, and/or supplementary videos to illustrate your thoughts.
We will discuss the following:
- What was the system of peonage and contract labor like?
- What conditions in the South led to the development of the system?
- What have the consequences been for the US through the period of time we will be studying and through today?
- What does this change about the way we think about the US and the American South?
- How does it help us understand racial issues that still face the US today?
We had a presentation today from one of the major publishers, and in the process, we had an impromptu conversation about teaching history as well. It got me thinking about my own assumptions about teaching history, so I thought I needed to sit down and work out some things here.
What got me going was something that I have already encountered before and that really irks me, that history teachers at the college level can’t manage to cover the material that is in the assigned history course. We split up our American history course at 1877, but I seem to be the only instructor that actually tries to cover the time period of the course. As far as I can tell, the rest of the department usually gets to around 1850 in the first half of the course and to about 1950-60 in the second half. To me, that is outrageous, but I seemed to come off as some sort of traditionalist fuddy-duddy (if that’s really a word) for raising the idea that we ought to teach the period that we are assigned to teach. I cover the first half of American history to 1877 and get to 2001 in the second half of the course, and I just assumed that should be what everyone should be aiming for. Instead, everyone else seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the fact that teaching American history that covers a certain period of time does not mean that you have to actually cover that period. And the easy acceptance of that has me thinking if I’m somehow wrong in my own thinking. I remember having surveys that didn’t complete the time period going all the way back to jr high/high school, when we ended in around 1850 and started up in 1877, meaning that I did not have anything on the Civil War or Reconstruction. In fact, since I didn’t have to take the surveys, I didn’t actually take a course that covered that period until I took the actual Civil War and Reconstruction course at Rice. To me and my fellow history majors, this always seemed like a big joke that a person couldn’t cover the finite ground of American history and bother to actually complete the course, and I made that a priority in my own teaching that I would always make sure that the students got the full coverage. And this is not just because I feel that they should hear about everything, although that is something that I do believe, but that I think that if students are going to understand how history is relevant to their lives, you can’t just take a few bits here and there and leave out the rest and expect them to get a full picture of how the history of the country has affected how their own world is today. Yet, I seem to come off as naive in my department for believing that actually covering the Civil War and Reconstruction period or the period after 1960 is somehow relevant and something that the students should have as part of their course sequence. Some of them do argue that they cover all of it because they do assign all parts of the textbook and quiz them over the chapters that are not covered in class, but that seems to be a quite limited argument at best.
I was reminded that the current state standards for history don’t actually say anything about the subjects we are supposed to cover, but instead look at communication, social relations, and other aspects. So, maybe I am the one that is backward. If nobody but me believes that you should actually cover the material, then maybe I am the one who is wrong here. So, as I said to start here, I’m trying to think about why it is that I believe in full coverage in the survey. To me, it is just what you do, so it is hard for me to get my mind around not completing the course, so I am having quite a bit of trouble here. I especially am troubled by the fact that when others don’t complete the course, and I then get them, I am referring to material that they are then unfamiliar with, as they didn’t get that coverage in another course. But that is a fairly irrelevant argument really, as we all teach the class in different ways, so the emphases will always be different from one class to another. There’s also the argument that if we are more concerned with teaching critical thinking, writing ability, and the like, then the actual specifics of the subject we teach is irrelevant. But then, what am I doing teaching history at that point. I’ll just teach a critical writing and thinking course with a few historical examples instead and call it a history class. Is that where I’m supposed to be going? If that’s the implication, that the actual history we study is irrelevant to the teaching process, then I have really been doing it wrong over the years. When I say that I want to move beyond the lecture and flip my class, I am not talking about ditching the history all together, but that seemed to be the implication today, that you should just do your best to cover the material, but that the intention of turning the students into thinking people afterwards was more important than covering the material. I don’t know if I’m characterizing what I heard incorrectly, but I am just troubled by the implications of it.
Here’s an illustration of what I find a problem. This is from my syllabus, where I lay out the course objectives for my first half of American history course:
Course Objectives for HIST 1301
- Students will understand the following historical themes:
- colonization of the New World
- formation of the English colonies
- development of a unified colonial America
- creation of a revolutionary ideology
- development of a slave system
- creation of a national identity
- development and changes in religious, cultural, and social identity
- development of a divide between the North and South
- causes of the Civil War
- consequences of Reconstruction
- Students will understand the development of an American nation and how it is relevant to the world they live in today.
- Students will learn how to analyze historical evidence for validity, reliability, and bias.
- Students will understand how to use evidence to prove an argument.
- Students will understand the concept of historical significance, allowing them to put an event, idea, or person into historical context.
- Students will learn how to write coherent, well-thought-out material that presents their ideas and evidence in an organized manner.
- Students will be encouraged to question the standard assumptions of American history and use the history studied in this course to evaluate the place of the United States in the world today.
So, in what I understand about what I am trying to do in teaching American history would remain largely the same. I’d just lose 9 and 10 from the first learning objective (and pieces of the others as well). Is my course lesser because I don’t cover that material? Am I doing my job if I don’t cover those parts? I think so, personally, but, again, I seem to be in the minority. This whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. As one of the instructors in the room today said, there may be 17 chapters in the first half survey, but he only does 13 of them because he spends the first month going through the idea of “what is history” with the students, and that the time he has left over only allows him to get through Chapter 13 out of 17. When I objected to this, I felt like I was belittled because I found it important that the instructors cover all 17 chapters. But that’s really not it, it’s not that I think all 17 chapters are important, and I leave out a hell of a lot when I do teach a survey, as we all do. But, when these are things that I have identified as fundamental to what the students should do in the course, then I can’t help but question whether I’m wrong or what.
I’ll have to come back to this when I have had more time to think about it, as I’m still a bit bewildered at the moment.