Stories from a D.C. History Classroom
By Julian Hipkins
For two months in the spring of 2016, Teaching for Change staff member Julian Hipkins III taught a class in D.C. history at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. The strategies and resources he used for teaching from a bottom up perspective, described below, could be of use for other teachers of D.C. history. In addition to drawing on archives, key people, and historic cites, his core text was City of Magnificent Intentions by Keith Melder.
D.C. History Quiz
On the first day of class, I wanted to assess what students knew about Washington, D.C., beyond the monuments. I also wanted to engage students by showing them information that perhaps they had never seen before about their own city. As we went through a D.C. history quiz, students were surprised by many facts.
The most memorable reaction was related to the question about U.S. presidents and how many people they owned. Students were astonished to learn that a quarter of all U.S. presidents owned people. One student asked “How can that be?”
Original Inhabitants of Washington, D.C.
Radio show host (Cherokee, Taino and Shoshone) Jay Winter Nightwolf came to speak with students about the history of American Indians in the D.C. area. Nightwolf is the originator and host of “The American Indian’s Truths – Nightwolf – ‘The Most Dangerous Show On Radio’” WPFW 89.3 FM every Friday. (Search for “The Nightwolf Show” to find archived shows) During his visit, he spoke about the importance of the Potomac River for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived, as a trading center not just for the region but the entire eastern seaboard.
Students completed one response paper per unit. The paper asked students to analyze the content of the unit and think critically about its relevance today. The prompt was provided in advance of the writing day so that students could prepare their responses. Students had one day in class (typically the final day of the unit) to complete their response papers. Response papers had to be typed, 1-3 pages in length. Here is an excerpt from one. The prompt was, How has present day D.C. been shaped by its early inhabitants (American Indians, African Americans, Europeans)? Use evidence from the readings and lectures to support your claim:
When Europeans put these restrictions on blacks it resulted in many blacks being put in jail and having to serve time in prison. A punishment for criminals was slavery. This made it easier for Europeans and whites to enslave blacks. 400 some odd years later, slavery is still accepted as a punishment for a crime in a society that still punishes African-American’s (descendants of Africans) harsher than whites (descendants of Europeans).
Students visited Lincoln’s Cottage which is a short walk from E.L. Haynes. The visit followed a unit on Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Lincoln’s Cottage was where President Lincoln and his family lived seasonally to escape the heat and political pressure of the White House. Lincoln wrote the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the cottage.
Egyptian Influence on Washington, D.C.
As we studied the plan for the city of Washington, students learned about Pierre L’Enfant, Benjamin Banneker, and Andrew Ellicott. L’Enfant devised the original street grid for the city based on the boundary stones laid by Banneker and Andrew Ellicott. In terms of other motivation for monuments and plans, students were introduced to a connection to ancient Egypt. A few years ago, I went on the Egypt on the Potomac Field Trip and learned quite a bit about the Egyptian influence on certain aspects of Washington, D.C. The tour was based on the book Egypt on the Potomac by Anthony Browder. We went through a power point about the structures in D.C. and then watched excerpts from a film about the various ways in which Washington reflects aspects of ancient Egyptian architecture and thought.
The Snow Riot and the Pearl Escape
D.C. is home to the federal government, however, its impact does not stop there. In the early 1800s, two events took place that had a national impact. One such event is the Snow Riot. When an enslaved African American man was accused of attempting to kill his master, he was pursued and jailed. The response from enraged whites was to burn any business near the jail that was associated with African Americans. The man leading the prosecution was Francis Scott Key who owned people and actively suppressed work by abolitionists. When this fact was revealed, a student noted, “It is ironic that he wrote the national anthem while owning people.” Learn more in this 2005 article from The Washington Post and in the book Snow-Storm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835
David Smith of the Pearl Coalition came to speak to students about the historic attempt of enslaved Africans to find their freedom. On April 16, 1847, 77 enslaved Africans attempted to escape to freedom on the schooner Pearl. The ship departed from the wharf in southwest Washington, D.C. Once their escape had been discovered, a group of men began to pursue them. Due to strong winds, the Pearl was unable to escape from the Chesapeake. The enslaved Africans were captured and returned to Washington. Some were sold to areas further south, while others gained their freedom. Read more.
After students learned about the Snow Riot and Pearl Incident, they had to write an editorial in the voice of a reporter from that time period. Students had to write two editorials, one from the perspective of someone supporting the liberation of enslaved peoples and one from the perspective of someone that wanted to continue the torture and sale of human beings.
Arthur Bowen was a victim of racially based misconceptions and prejudice. Beverly Snow too became a victim of these misconceptions. It was slavery and blatant racism that characterized that young man, Arthur Bowen, as an attempted murderer and almost caused him his life. The entire institution of slavery, supporters of slavery and racist ideologies are to blame for the development of the Snow Riot.
Central American Immigration to D.C.
After students read a chapter from City of Magnificent Intentions focused on immigration during the late 1800s/early 1900s, I decided to do a lesson focusing on present day immigration to the D.C. area. Central America: An Introductory Lessonfocuses on individuals related in some way to Central America. Student assume roles of these individuals and then go around to meet new people. At the end of the activity, I showed a clip from the award winning film, Harvest of Empire. The scene I chose focused on El Salvador, since the majority of Central Americans living the D.C. area are from El Salvador. During the clip, students were glued to the screen. After the screening, I reiterated that the reason why people from Central America come to this country is a direct result of the actions of the U.S. government in Central America.
The Great Migration In First Person
World famous after her visit to the White House for the 2016 Black History Month reception, Ms. Virginia McLaurin spoke with D.C. history classes at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School on March 16, 2016. McLaurin was born in South Carolina and came to D.C. during the Great Migration. Read more about her visit.
Go-Go Goes to School
On March 24, William “Ju Ju” House visited as part of the “Teach the Beat: Go-Go Goes to School: Artists and Scholars in the Classroom,” which is designed to to infuse D.C.’s rich and unique tradition of go-go in the curriculum. The initiative is coordinated by Teaching for Change, in partnership with D.C. Public Schools, with funding from D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH). The D.C. history class was joined by students from Jennifer Fox-Thomas’ music classes. Read more.
Bolling v. Sharpe
When learning about school desegregation, students were introduced to the case Bolling v. Sharpe which dealt with the desegregation of John Philip Sousa Middle School in Washington, D.C. The students were surprised to learn that the school, which is now in a predominately African-American neighborhood, was once all white. Students engaged in a lesson from the Zinn Education Project focusing on the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although the circumstances of the desegregation were different, the various points of view were undoubtedly shared by parents and community members in both cities. Here is an article from civilrightsteaching.org by teacher Elizabeth A. Davis at John Philip Sousa Middle School in 2004 about Bolling v. Sharpe.
Mapping Segregation in D.C./Restrictive Covenants
During the lesson about school desegregation, students were shown information about the history of restrictive covenants in D.C. using information on the Mapping Segregation in Washington D.C. storymap.
In addition, I introduced students to the Office of Tax and Revenue Recorder of Deeds website that allows you to search any property in the city in order to see a copy of the deed to find out if the property had a restrictive covenant at one time. If you don’t know the name of the owner, you can find the square and lot number by inputting the address.
The riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a turning point in the history of Washington, D.C. To introduce this event, students participated in a gallery walk with images of buildings and neighborhoods that were effected by the riot. As students walked around the room writing comments next to the images, they realized that, for many of them, they were looking at their own neighborhoods. Buildings that once housed cleaners are now convenience stores. Following the gallery walk, to put students in the moment when people found out about the death of Dr. King, a video of Walter Cronkite announcing the death of Dr. King was played.
Students were then shown films from the National Archives video collection showing troops walking through neighborhoods during the riots.
Students often engaged in seminars that focused on information that was covered in a unit. A fishbowl format was often used in which half of the class sat in a small inner circle while the other half of the class observed a specific classmate and gave feedback on their participation in the outer circle. Five students volunteered to be facilitators during each seminar. As facilitators, students had to come up with questions to ask during the fishbowl and ensure that each student had a chance to speak.
Streetcars were a big part of the growth of Washington, D.C. Street car lines influence where businesses moved throughout the city. For extra credit, students were asked to ride the new D.C. street car and take a picture during their ride.
During a unit about building construction in Petworth, students were shown images of buildings as they were in the 1920 and 1930s. The image on the left of 234 Upshur Street, was one of the images shown. During the walk to Lincoln’s Cottage, student were asked to find the house today, without knowing the address. The hint was that we would pass the house on the way. Some students were able to locate the house and take a picture for extra credit.
Students had to take a picture with the same vantage point as four pictures on or near the National Mall. One of the sites was Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery. While visiting on St. Patrick’s Day, students witnessed a ceremony at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in the images below.
D.C. to ME project
When most people in the U.S. hear Washington D.C., the images that come to their mind are the White House, Capitol, or the Washington Monument. For those of us who live here, the city means so much more. Students had to create a video/media presentation that captures what D.C. means to them. Here is one example by a student.
City of Magnificent Intentions, Keith Melder (1997)4
Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C., Francine Curro Cary (1996/1997)
Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, D.C., Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood (2014)
Washington Seen, Fredric M. Miller and Howard Gillette (Editor) (1995)