Saturday, July 25, 2015

Who Are The People We Honor?

This morning I was looking at the historical register for Montana, gathering ideas for upcoming lessons.   As I waited for inspiration to strike, I checked my email.  There was something from the Zinn Project  "Its Not Just the Confederate Flag" .  

I have a friend who lives in South Carolina.  I worry about her safety and the safety of her family.   When I was in the service another friend and I invited one of our instructors to visit Montana.  He looked at us smiled and said a firm no.  He had no intention of ever returning to Montana.

He had traveled through Montana in the late 60's to get to a family funeral.  He remembered stopping for gas in Montana and being stared at.  At the time I laughed and said small towns do that with every outsider.  Little did I understand how sinister those actions would feel to someone who had experienced violence because of the color of their skin.

The news stories of today make me wonder if I have fallen into a time warp or an alternate universe where the 60's just continued without a change of course.  I ask myself how does this happen?  Why is it continuing?  What can we do to change it?  I believe understanding our history and heritage is the responsibility of being an informed citizen.

As an educator I believed the lynchings and bombings of the 60's were behind us.  That as a society we had turned the corner and were becoming a more enlightened society.  I was wrong!

In the Zinn Project post they wrote about two men I had never heard of.  The first was Ben Tillman South Carolina Governor and US Senator.  (His statue stands in front of the South Carolina Capitol.)  They also wrote about Robert Smalls another man I had never heard of.

The article makes the suggestion that perhaps it is time to honor heroic men and women and replace the monuments and statues of individuals whose actions we now view as despicable by reasonable people.

I do not live in South Carolina, I do not face violent discrimination every day.  I am an outsider looking in.  So what does this have to do with US Senator Ben Tillman and Robert Smalls?

The last several years it has been my privilege to facilitate workshops about teaching with primary sources.  I tell teachers that history is messy.  There are layers and many contradictions.  I remind teachers to view the language and documents within the context of the times.

Our textbooks write a sterilized paragraph or two about events.  Raw history is messy, violent and often does not end happily ever after.  It is about people.  Complex, unpredictable people whose lives are complicated and controversial.

I wonder what discussions we would have in our classrooms if we gave them primary sources surrounding both these men, and asked them who deserved to be honored in front of the South Carolina Capitol?  Whose perspective is not represented?
  In 1900 on the Senate floor  US Senator Tillman stated -  
“In my State there were 135,000 Negro voters, or Negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters. Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000?”

Senator Tillman often bragged about his involvement in the "Hamburg Massacre" 
Here is the article "DEMOCRATIC REFORM THE HAMBURG MASSACRE." as was published in the State Journal dated Aug 11, 1876  - Aug 11, 1876
In the article "Saving the Nation" The National Tribune wrote about Capt Robert Smalls

As a society we need to be having conversations about who we honor and why.  Can you imagine what those conversations would sound like in your classroom?