Social Studies Opinion

How Teaching Local Black History Can Empower Students

Who gets left out of local histories?
By Chuck Yarborough — February 01, 2022 3 min read
20 opinion robinsion yarborough 020222
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi” is an observation frequently attributed to William Faulkner (although he might not have actually said it). Despite the ambiguity of its origin, the remark can offer a useful framework for considering the recent fervor over how we teach American history, particularly the historical experiences and perspectives of Black and Indigenous people and other people of color.

As a veteran teacher whose time in a Mississippi classroom is approaching the end of its third decade, I’ve witnessed how much of my state has been shaped by common narratives—often incomplete or incorrect—about our shared history.

These incomplete histories—typically celebrated by those who benefit most from the status quo—not only prevent students from confronting important elements of our state history but also contribute to entrenched injustices in our society. Racial violence, economic injustice, and the corrupt exercise of power have often been absent from many of our history classrooms—not just those in my state.

See Also

20 opinion robinsion brown 020222
Erin Robinson for Education Week

These partial narratives undermine our ability to live up to some of our nation’s founding ideals—most notably, the recognition of equality. Mississippi students are then left to confront injustices without the perspective, knowledge, and wisdom history can offer. For instance, the Mississippi Plan, which was devised by white Southern Democrats in 1875 to suppress the political power of the state’s majority Black population with the use of organized violence, isn’t included in the high school curriculum that the state requires for graduation.

Some Mississippians have worked to uncover and share a more complete understanding of our state’s history and the experiences of all who have called Mississippi home. In some classrooms, that recognition has found expression through primary-document research projects exploring local history. In The Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration, a research and performance project I developed for my students, high school juniors and seniors explore how local Black experiences reflect our regional and national history.

The students conduct primary-document research to explore Black history from our community, develop critical-thinking skills, and share their findings through public performance. When sharing their research, students not only learn important history, but they also develop their voices and recognize their potential for leadership through steering relevant discussions of race, class, and democracy.

The benefits of exploring a more complete and accurate understanding of our local past—particularly Black history—while gaining insights applicable to our national past are obvious. Students are empowered to contribute more fully to their local community, and the community comes to understand itself better.

The benefits of exploring a more complete and accurate understanding of our local past—particularly Black history—while gaining insights applicable to our national past are obvious.

To critics of a more inclusive history curriculum, however, uncovering and sharing a more complete picture of our racial past somehow constitutes a biased rewriting of history that is destructive to the core values of our state and nation. That position puzzles history teachers like me who recognize the need to accurately teach and understand our nation’s history.

During our emancipation-celebration performances two years ago, one of my students demonstrated the emotional weight of telling that more complete history. Reciting a script created from student research about Robert Gleed, a Black Reconstruction-era state senator who was driven out of Mississippi by white violence, my student concluded: “While my time on this Earth ended over a century ago, seeing all of you here tells me I didn’t struggle for nothing.”

Teachers and students who study history carefully can aspire to the legacy left to us by Americans who have struggled in the past. We can realize whose experiences and perspectives have been devalued or purposefully distorted. We can see how many Americans have had to struggle against racist resistance, violence, and oppression to achieve full access to those truths that are supposed to be “self-evident.” We also see Americans who continue to struggle for a better future, in spite of the many obstacles placed before them.

Coverage of race and opportunity is supported in part by a grant from Spencer Foundation, at www.spencer.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Correcting the False Narratives In Our Local History


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leading Systemic Redesign: Strategies from the Field
Learn how your school community can work together to redesign the school system, reengineer instruction, & co-author personalized learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Opinion I Am a High School Junior. I’m Not Prepared to Vote
I will be voting for the rest of my life, so why aren't I taught how to do so in school?
Sidhi Dhanda
3 min read
Illustration of diverse hands holding up checkmarks
Social Studies Is a Comprehensive U.S. History Course Still Possible? Scholars Weigh In
Historians say a pluralistic view is possible, but more needs to be done to help students explore contested narratives and perspectives.
5 min read
111622 GLC Conference 1 BS
History teachers from across the country discuss innovative ways to teach racial history at a conference hosted earlier this month by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Vieira
Social Studies What the Research Says Elections Depend on Young Voters. Can Civics Tests Drive Up Their Turnout?
New research suggests that states' efforts to require civics testing for high school students largely fell flat.
3 min read
Ben Wigginton contemplates his votes at the Braddock Heights Community Center in Braddock Heights, Md., on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
Ben Wigginton contemplates his vote at a community center in Braddock Heights, Md., on Nov. 8.
Ric Dugan/The Frederick News-Post via AP
Social Studies Opinion What’s the Point of Civics Education?
Teachers seem to be embracing a notion of civics education that is largely content-free.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty