PAULY: The debate about what to do with Richmond’s Confederate monuments continues…even in the classroom. Some local educators are using that discussion as a way to engage students.
History can be a tricky subject to teach. It’s not just about dates and events but also a complex combination of beliefs and narratives. As William Faulkner said, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even the past.” VCU history and education professor Gabriel Reich explored these issues when thinking about the origins of Confederate statues in Richmond. He says Virginia’s history curriculum largely ignores historical nuances and controversies.
REICH: “So our state standards on the Civil War both say that slavery is the main cause of the war but largely ignores the ways in which white supremacy reinstate itself after Reconstruction. And that is really when those monuments begin to be erected.”
PAULY: Reich recently published guidance for educators teaching this part of history. He became intrigued by the overpowering nature of Richmond’s monuments when he moved to the area from New York, and wondered what effect they had on today’s youth.
REICH: “Do they even recognize them or are they just a place for pigeons to roost or something you pass once in a while when you drive down Monument Avenue?”
PAULY: Seeing the past up close is part of history teacher Brittany Jones’ curriculum. A former student of Reich’s, she wanted her class to have a deeper understanding of how myths and beliefs were shaped following the Civil War.
JONES: “The historiography of slavery is really interesting. And the Lost Cause movement has a lot to do with why for many, many years - really up until the 1950s - slavery was seen as something that was not bad. That there were these good slaves, and they were happy and slave owners were benevolent...this idea and this story. And you see that with The Birth of a Nation that comes out at the turn of the 20th century, Gone with the Wind, and all of that really changes in the 1950s with different scholars coming out and talking about slavery saying opposite things. And the kids - now they do - but before, they really did not see how these monuments going up, and the ideology and that time period...how they’re all intertwined. ”
PAULY: During the same period - when many statues were going up - there was also a rise in documented lynchings of black Americans. Classroom discussion included talking about this history and the purpose of the monuments.
PAULY: After learning more about the men represented by the monuments, Jones wanted her students to share their own feelings about keeping Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, or removing them. She asked the high schoolers to stand on either side of the classroom next to quotes expressing both viewpoints. The opinions of the all-African American class were split 50/50.
JONES: “There were some kids literally standing on the line because they didn’t know which one they agreed with, so they were in the middle. But the majority of the kids chose a side. And of course once you chose a side you can't just sit there, you have to defend your side.”
PAULY: Some even switched sides after hearing their classmates’ views. And Jones says some perspectives shifted after the class took a field trip to walk down Monument Avenue. 17-year-old Shounte Rowe is a senior at John Marshall.
ROWE: “It was kind of a smack in our face putting those up knowing what they did to us in the early 1900s...but you can't just live on in the past, it's going to cause more problems in the future.”
PAULY: Rowe says it was her first time walking on Monument Avenue.
ROWE: “The police were following us the whole time and then people across the street were looking at us like, why are ya'll around here? So like, there’s still some type of racism going on now.”
PAULY: Students saw each of the five Confederate monuments in person, and looked at Arthur Ashe’s statue on Google Earth. Jones says that when she duplicates the lesson this year, she’ll make sure to include that monument on the tour, too.
JONES: “Honestly a lot of kids said if any monument should be taken down it should be his from Monument Avenue because it doesn't flow with the others. It just seems out of place for them, they said it looked silly.”
PAULY: Professor Gabriel Reich encourages teachers and students to discuss the Arthur Ashe controversy. In his guidance, he includes contrasting opinion pieces from local papers in the 1990s. Reich says examination of these historical documents help add context and put into perspective for kids how the discussion and controversies evolve over time.
REICH: “History is interesting when it’s controversial. History is interesting when it touches on and helps us understand cultures that are very different from us that helps us understand how weird our own culture is and how strange our own times are. And that helps give us some perspective on what is on this world that exists around us today.”
GEE: “I feel like you should have other monuments up as well...such as Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman... maybe Barack Obama.”
PAULY: Gee says he sees the debate differently than his elders.
GEE: “I feel like if I would have been around when they were putting them up I would have been more upset. But being that they've been up so long, there's no reason to take them down now.”
PAULY: Jones asked a few follow-up questions, like: What happens if we do take down these monuments? Who is going to be upset? Who is it going to affect?
JONES: “One actually commented: well if they took the monuments down, what would that do to the property on Monument Avenue? Property values that is.”
PAULY: Students had other insights while on the trip.
JONES: “They were like: why would they have these Confederate monuments in such an affluent area? What does that say about the people living there? So they got into that discussion as well. Good observations.”
PAULY: By engaging students in these conversations, Reich says teachers are playing a role in cultivating civic participation of the teens. Reich says this part – using these lessons to move students to action – is most important.
RICH: “We do everything we can often to make it as uninteresting as possible to tamp down that passion instead of engaging with it and that's why students often feel alienated from school and from learning history. Unfortunately we see them only as empty vessels to be filled. Nobody is an empty vessel to be filled. Nobody likes being talked to like that, it's really condescending. So if we respect that students have something to bring to the conversation at whatever their level then we can create those opportunities for students to learn.”
PAULY: But first, he says parents and educators have to be willing to go there...and explore the often uncomfortable topics surrounding historical controversies.
For WCVE News, I’m Megan Pauly.