Education

This Is How They Teach South Carolina Students About Slavery

CREDIT: Mary Ann Chastain, AP

In Charleston, South Carolina, Civil War history and accounts of plantation life are a huge part of the town, and state, culture. An entire tourism business thrives off of showing visitors parts of this history – reenactments of Civil War battles, tours of mansions once owned by slave-owners, and staged scenes of home life for aristocrats of the period. It would be difficult for a culture that sees the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride instead of slavery, not to manifest itself at school.

South Carolina’s 2011 academic standards for what students should know in social studies classes uses fairly positive language to describe settlers by labeling their actions as “accomplishments.” A grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History program, Teaching American History in South Carolina, includes many examples of possible lesson plans on its website.

The grant program ended in 2009 but it’s still provided as guidance for teachers on the South Carolina Department of Education’s website. For example, one lesson plan is to “summarize the motivation and accomplishments” of the Vikings and the Portuguese, Spanish, English and French explorers, including Lief Erickson, Christopher Columbus, Hernando de Soto, Ferdinand Magellan and Henry Hudson, to name a few.

Some of the other lesson plans included comparing inventories for two colonial plantations, those of Thomas Drayton and Charles Moore. The students would choose five categories, such as “slaves,” “furnishings,” “farm tools,” and “total estate value” to compare inventories.

Some of the other lesson plans that were more focused on the perspectives of slaves were having children watch the 1977 television miniseries “Roots,” which follows the story of an enslaved family, and discussing the miniseries afterwards or learning about the separation of enslaved families. On the Stono Rebellion, however, there is an example lesson plan on the a teacher-led discussion on, among other things, “the economic necessity of slave labor.” The lesson plan focuses on the viewpoint of slaveowners, rather than the viewpoint of the rebelling slaves or their plans during and after the rebellion.

Guiding questions for the discussion included, “What happens to people when they misbehave at school?” and “What happened to the slaves who were involved in the rebellion?” Then the students were supposed to discuss whether the punishment was fair and what actions plantation owners can take to prevent another revolt. After the discussion, students could gather in small groups and record a list of actions planters could take to avoid further slave rebellions.

Although some of the lesson plans on the website mentioned the horrible circumstances in which slaves lived, the way slavery and slaves were described uses a lot of passive voice and describes why certain African slaves were chosen to do plantation work, as if Europeans would have done the work themselves had they possessed the skills. One of the lesson plans posted on the Teaching U.S. History in South Carolina page explains why West African slaves were chosen:

“Due to the omission of this crop in their European culture, English colonists who settled the rich North American land lacked the expertise required for the production of rice. Thus, the huge task of cultivating, processing, and packaging rice on South Carolina Plantations was commonly assigned to slaves. This task, though foreign to European colonists, proved to be quite common to the slaves who had been purposely imported from the rice growing region of West Africa. Where many English planters had failed in their previous attempts at growing and processing rice, the knowledge and rice-growing skills possessed by West Africans gave them a newfound success at cultivating the crop.”

Another lesson plan, which covers South Carolina rice plantations, focuses on the plantation owner and his family. The discussion focuses on the prominent slaveowning family, the Draytons. One teacher chose to dress as the fourth wife of John Drayton, the builder of Drayton Hall, in full historical dress:

“I began telling my story in personal narrative form; and, as I did, I shared the trunk’s contents: a Betsy doll; a sandalwood fan; two pair of cotton carders; several cotton boles; raw rice; an indigo plant; my chatelaine which held the keys to the house, a small birch mirror, snippets, and a silver thimble box; an ‘old’ dress of mine in the polonaise style; several 18th C toys; and various 18th C tools. I had them hooked. By the end of that first session, the students had developed a pleasant rapport with John’s young wife.”

The Education Improvement Act of 1984 was supposed to increase students’ exposure to African American history. It stipulated that by the 1989-90 school year, all public schools in the state had to “instruct students in the history of black people as a regular part of its history and social studies courses.”

For third through eighth grade, students were supposed to understand the socioeconomic and cultural lifestyles of African Americans through the state’s history, their influence on the state’s economy and struggle for political equity. For U.S. history in general, schools are to cover the role of black people in science and technology, the literary and cultural history of black people, the civil rights movement and the contribution of black women throughout U.S. history.

Implementation of those standards is often a different story, however, and depends on what issues teachers are pressured to cover or stay away from and how culturally competent teachers are.

Michael Williams, who teaches global studies and American history for high school juniors in West Columbia, South Carolina, says he would like to cover the accomplishments of civil rights leaders or the Harlem Renaissance in more detail, but he has a limited amount of time to teach students what they need to know before the state exams.

“In this state and I’m sure plenty of other states – the problem with U.S. history is that there’s a state exam students have to take that is cumulative and teachers are under a massive time crunch,” Williams said. “You go through 400 years of history – from Jamestown to normally the election of Obama and that’s running at a sprint. You have to go, go, go because you have to make sure you cover those standards in order to be able to take that and use it for the state exam.”

That makes it difficult to portray the enormity of the accomplishments civil rights leaders made throughout history, as a long and difficult slog, before white political figures became involved.

“It’s a little difficult, because politically, there is some backlash that can come from that and I work in a more suburban neighborhood. So that puts on a little pressure, as well as what comes from the state government and the fact that there is a limit on the kind of things you have time to focus on,” Williams said. “You don’t necessarily look at these great achievements. It’s more like ‘Oh, LBJ comes in with the Civil Rights Act,’ and you lose the little bit of what African Americans did during that time by bringing in these white presidents and other people as those who came in as the knight in shining armor and fixed things.”

Williams wrote his master’s thesis on South Carolina teaching standards and how they portray African history, African Americans and African American history in 2009. According to his thesis, Africa was only covered in depth once before students reach eleventh grade, when students learn about Egypt. The 2011 South Carolina social studies standards shows more coverage of Africa, but it is still limited.

For sixth grade, where students would study early cultures to 1600, the Ghana, Mali and Songhai kingdoms, and the impact of Islam on those kingdoms, are covered in two lines of the standards on what to cover during that time period.

In eighth grade, students cover South Carolina history, which includes Native American culture, the effect of slavery on the culture and economy of the state and the Stono Rebellion, as well as the “motives, activities and accomplishments” of the exploration of the U.S. by the Spanish, French and English.

When asked how he communicates the motivations of the Confederacy in the Civil War to students who connect the Confederacy to their heritage, Williams said he discusses it in a way that forces students to come to the realization themselves.

“I really try to say ‘What was the South going to war for?’ They may say, ‘They were fighting for state rights.’ And I say, ‘Well, state rights to do what?’ It was states’ rights to own slaves. So it always comes back to that issue, no matter what people want to argue … So I try to make that connection really clear instead of saying ‘You’re wrong. It was over slavery,’ and being a little more abrupt about it,” Williams said.