Teaching Black History in a Summer of Historic Happenings

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This summer our college filled three online sections of a six-week intensive Black History course in a matter of weeks. The sheer volume of student requests for capacity overrides led us to add to the number of sections of the full-semester course we will offer in the fall. Here at the community college where I teach students are undoubtedly motivated to understand how we as a nation arrived at current debates about race and racism.


Teaching the course has been both exciting and overwhelming because so much is happening in real time around topics about which I’m introducing to the students. News references to “Jim Crow” and “Black Wall Street,” for example, are leading students to wonder  about other subjects that were never taught to them in general United States history classes. Keeping the students focused on covering fifteen textbook chapters in just six weeks with the world changing seemingly by the minute around them has been difficult. Try as I might to stick to the course syllabus, weekly discussion boards have inevitably strayed to conversations about current events. I decided early in the first session of summer classes that I needed to try to satisfy both aspects of student curiosity simultaneously -- history and current events. 


Midway through the first six-week session, therefore, I began sending an extra email to the class each week specifically about current events with links to articles and/or videos to help the students explore a topic that I had seen or read about in the news further. The first link I sent was a “60 Minutes” piece on the Greenwood (Tulsa) Massacre of 1921. My brief email reminded the students about upcoming assignments and then added the link at the end. The cynic in me assumed that my already busy students would ignore the link. Instead I received a handful of emails sharing perspectives about what they had watched. The positive reactions from students encouraged me to continue the practice for the rest of the six-week session. I discovered along the way that a local historical organization had compiled a list of ways that residents could celebrate “Juneteenth” in our state. Sharing that list revealed to my students that Black History physically surrounds them every day -- not only during  the month of February.


At the end of the course I sent the students a final email that included a list of articles that I believe will be meaningful to the group now that they have completed a Black History course. This list included articles about textbook biases and surveys of current beliefs about the history of slavery. While many of these articles were published prior to the most recent round of civil rights activism that began in May 2020, my hope is that my students now have the historical context through which to understand articles that they likely would not have read prior to studying Black History in a formal course setting.


The task of keeping students focused on the past to complete the course goals was enhanced by encouraging them to think about the present. By sending students links to articles and videos I hope that I encouraged the students to look beyond the news sources they might typically read and open their minds to new perspectives. Several students thanked me for helping them sort through “too much” information coming through their social media feeds while others shared articles with me that provided a foundation for further discussion and gave me a window into the news sources that students are regularly reading. 


How are you balancing the challenge of teaching history and current events this summer? Please share. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.