Recovering and Teaching Local History

Local history has a profound effect on our communities. It’s up to educators to learn and teach students about the hard history in their own backyards.
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White Texans' resistance to black students' enrollment in Mansfield High School leads to "The Mansfield Crisis," 1956 / Associated Press

The battle for American history—real American history—is happening right now. By “real history,” I mean one that captures a more complete story and includes narratives of oppressed people, a history that connects the past with the present. It’s a stark contrast to the way history has been taught in our schools

As more people gain access to historical documents and online platforms that emphasize equity and justice, we see deeper dives into this real history. A recent, shining example can be found in the 1619 Project and the reporting on the legacy of slavery that it’s inspired. This initiative is an extraordinary undertaking that shows how slavery shaped the United States and continues to affect nearly every facet of American life.

While it’s encouraging to watch this public recovery of history unfold, it’s critical that an accurate account of American history takes place inside the classroom. As we work to better educate ourselves about long-ignored national histories, though, we often miss something right under our noses: local history. 

Students must learn the truth about their own communities. That’s the history that has the most direct impact on the trajectory of their lives. 


Local History Matters

When I worked as a newspaper journalist, I would often look beneath the surface of breaking news stories to find the histories that provided context for current events. In 2014, I traveled to Grand Saline, Texas, the town to which Rev. Charles Moore returned for his self-immolation. The Southern preacher had sacrificed his body to protest the United States’ treatment of marginalized people. He decided to perform this act in his East Texas birthplace, which was notoriously known as a sundown town, where Black people who remained after nightfall were threatened with violence. 

When Moore’s self-immolation made headlines, it was sensational. Journalists and readers focused primarily on the traumatizing way he completed suicide. But few delved into why he did it in that space. The town had changed, some residents pointed out. They noted that it was no longer a sundown town. Racism no longer lived there, they said, so there was no need to bring up the past. 

But the remnants of the past were, in fact, still with them. Residents I talked to said the infamous sign that warned Black people to stay away was visible from a major highway as late as the 1980s. Today, less than 1 percent of the population is Black, and Black people outside the town warn in jest, “You don’t want to go through there.”

Later in 2014, after I’d visited Grand Saline, the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas contacted me. He’d been helping the descendants of the massacre’s victims preserve this history. Black residents in a rural East Texas town were killed or forced off their land following days of relentless white mob violence—just as they were in Elaine, Arkansas (1919); in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921); and in Rosewood, Florida (1923). It doesn’t take much research to see that these aren’t isolated horrors. This type of terrorism helped create all-white communities, build wealth and sustain white supremacy across the nation. 

Descendants of the Slocum massacre’s victims worked tirelessly to get this history acknowledged by Texas officials. They also wanted it included in the state’s history textbooks—a goal still unrealized. Unless this oral history was passed down in their families, most people in Texas don’t know about the land grab, murder and displacement of a community. The story is buried—figuratively and literally. At least one descendant wants to honor these ancestors with a proper burial, but attempts to lobby residents to allow the exhumation of an alleged mass grave were unsuccessful. The mass grave is said to lie on the property of a current landowner who is unwilling to explore the issue. 

And then there is the town where I lived: Tyler, Texas, less than an hour away. The city has a complex history with deep ties to the Confederacy and Texas’ secession from the Union. Tyler was the site of at least three public lynchings, and many white residents were fiercely resentful of integration. 

I always wondered why I couldn’t find many stories about resistance in Tyler. But learning about this Confederate-friendly region and reading the stories of violence made it easier to understand. The keepers of white supremacy were just too powerful, and they caused too much fear in the Black community. It’s no surprise that, in 2017, when an effort to rename Robert E. Lee High School failed, opponents clung to notions of culture and heritage

Local history helps students better understand their community, as well as the inequities they see around them every day.

Why Teachers Must Dig Up the Past

It’s hard to find real local history in textbooks, and it takes courage to teach these hidden, hard histories. But it’s not hard to help students uncover this history. They can start with the origins of the names of streets, schools and government buildings in their city. Or they can consider how the hard history of our nation played out in their community. After learning about the slave trade, they might explore the lives of enslaved people who lived in their town. When learning about the courage of youth during Freedom Summer, they can track the fight for voting rights. Or they can learn about their district’s integration story and compare it to the Little Rock Nine and other stories. 

Local history helps students better understand their community, as well as the inequities in education, poverty, health outcomes and other issues that they see around them every day. 

Teachers are already introducing concepts and events that set the scene to examine their community’s history. For example, students in New York, Chicago and Detroit could explore the origins of housing discrimination in their cities when they study the Great Migration—a direct result of white mob violence. World War I resulted in more than the Treaty of Versailles. It also produced Red Summer and other acts of violence lobbed at Black soldiers returning home to Houston and other cities. And when educators teach about U.S. geography, they are talking about how slavery and settler-colonialism helped to literally and figuratively shape our nation—whether they recognize it or not.  

This work isn’t easy, and educators must do some self-reflection before they begin. We know that the past never really goes away. When transgressions against humanity go unchecked, that injustice stays with us. And it doesn’t take much digging to see how the history of your students’ community shapes their lives. 

It’s important to understand the place where you serve. Reach out to local elders and storytellers. Visit the closest museum that doesn’t center whiteness or dominant narratives. Take frequent trips with your students to the local library, make use of its many resources and dive into projects about your town’s history. 

Doing this work with students might inspire them to continue to look for real history long after they leave your classroom. 

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

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