Category Archives: Teaching

My Last Sesquicentennial Hurrah

Deon Megan Ian
three history students participate in a scene drawn from letters between soldiers and their wives

Last night, we presented Civil War Songs and Stories: Commemorating Emancipation, a concert I organized and designed with a friend and colleague in the UNCP Music Department, Dr. Jose Rivera. This was a big production for a school our size — Jose’s choir, the University Chorale, with about 50 members, plus a student brass quintet, a guest band, a slideshow of period photographs and images, and twelve speakers drawn primarily from History Department students and faculty (although we brought in one ringer from Theatre). I’m guessing we had about 250 people in the audience.

four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860
four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860

I did enjoy watching my colleagues yell at each other. Even better, our students really stepped up and did a tremendous job. All the speakers inhabited their characters quite well — and most managed to do their lines from memory. The vocal soloists were fantastic. They sang difficult repertoire (Kurt Weill’s setting of O Captain! My Captain!, Harry Burleigh’s Steal Away, Jon Kander’s A Letter from Sullivan Ballou) with both precision and emotion. The choir was wonderful as well. And everyone was pleasant to work with — even if I probably drove them nuts at some point in the proceedings.

General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy
General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy

We closed the concert with a big chorus from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown, featuring a baritone soloist as Frederick Douglass, with text compiled from his speeches in England in 1846. It may seem strange to end with an antebellum text, but it culminates in the choir quoting the Declaration of Independence:

Douglas: “What do we ask of America? We only ask that it complete its own Revolution! That revolution which declared to all the world — We hold these truths, to be self evident …” And then everyone repeats the early lines from the Declaration, concentrating heavily on “all men are created equal.”

I thought it was a nice counterpoint to the segment from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural we had just used. In both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of unfinished business, and subsequent generations of commemorative speeches at Gettysburg have taken their cue from Lincoln as well, defining that “unfinished business” as the persistent problem of inequality in American society. Different speakers have highlighted different types of inequality, but the theme has remained consistent, and I thought it was a good one to highlight at the end of our program.

This concert was UNCP’s last sesquicentennial event. I started the Civil War series in the fall of 2010, and I certainly plan to continue it, but I don’t plan on doing anything this large or complex for quite some time. But it was a great evening, and I can’t wait to see the video.

Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom
Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom

When Teaching = Getting out of the Way

The ten middle-school kids sat in a circle on the green carpeted floor outside the lecture hall, glancing nervously at each other. It was the second day of the second week of camp, and they had already ascertained their place in the hierarchy — they were the kids who didn’t participate in class, or if they did, they were the kids who never said anything particularly smart. The teachers seemed thrilled if they even spoke, and they didn’t use big words like their classmates did. Except now they had to talk, because the other kids — the smarter ones, the ones who knew how to speak the teachers’ language — were in the auditorium waiting for a decision.

I, too, was nervous. Today’s activity was one of my most anticipated classroom simulations, the one that our site administrators frequently brought visitors from the main office to watch. Because we had an audience, I always choose my best talkers — the students I could count on to be eloquent, or at least audible — to play the characters in the trial. My quiet kids, my as-yet-unknowns, filled the jury. And now these kids, the ones who were smart at their regular schools but felt totally out of their league at gifted camp, had to wrestle with concepts that most American teenagers had never even considered, much less debated: habeas corpus, free speech, treason, sedition, executive power, constitutional interpretation, and the definition of war. Were we crazy to expect this of them?

This trial was a joint activity between my Civil War class and the Great Cases in American Legal History class. I had helped design it several years earlier, and I’d had good and not-so-good experiences using it in the classroom. The worst — though notable for its passion — was when a student had to leave camp after physically assaulting a classmate who interfered with her cross-examination. Most bad outcomes were more prosaic, involving witnesses whose portrayal of their assigned roles could have served as examples of really bad acting for our colleagues teaching drama, lawyers who failed to ask the right questions, or jurors who just couldn’t move beyond the “Lincoln mystique” to consider the possibility that he might have done something bad (gasp!). On the other hand, I’d had numerous spirited conversations with my students about this trial over the last four years, most memorably with a young man playing Lincoln who was absolutely convinced his classmates should have impeached him. Yet this group of ten terrified jurors would turn out to be the most surprising success story out of twelve consecutive Lincoln trials.

With almost no guidance from either teacher, they held a free-flowing, inclusive discussion, slipping between the questions, exploring their connections. Did Abraham Lincoln overstep his constitutional authority by suspending habeas corpus in Maryland? To whom, exactly, did the Constitution grant the power to suspend habeas corpus? Could Lincoln order generals and armies into position without a Congressional declaration of war? Did you need a declaration to invade your own country? Was the Confederacy actually a country? Did the Commander-in-Chief have the power to dispense War Department funds if Congress hadn’t actually declared war? Could Congress retroactively grant the President permission to do things if he had acted when they were out of session? Did the President have the right to ignore the Supreme Court? Does the answer to that question change if the Chief Justice is a senile racist?

Two things about their discussion truly impressed me. First, they managed to deal with all of these questions in the context of our trial simulation — not what they read in their textbooks, not what was going on in 2004, but what their classmates had presented to them about events in 1862. Second — and perhaps the second was dependent on the first — they actually listened to each other. Sometimes they even changed their minds — and nobody called anybody a flip-flopper. Periodically they stopped to hold a vote on the charges, and each time the vote count changed. I became their cheerleader, refusing to let the lack of a clear consensus discourage their debate.

I’ve found, in previous and subsequent discussions, how hard it is for people to leave behind their preconceived notions and react to new material, whether it’s a trial simulation or a primary document. But this is so important in studying and teaching history — it’s always a great moment when students can forget everything they know now in order to understand the experiences and opinions of people who lived 150 years ago, people who didn’t know how things would turn out. I’m also routinely frustrated in class discussions when students fail to listen to each other, to react and respond in their statements rather than just saying what they had intended at the beginning of the discussion, or just talking to the teacher. In this case, they almost seemed to forget that there were teachers in the room. And while some wanted to give up early in the process, others actually enjoyed hearing what everyone had to say, looking for places of agreement and disagreement, conflict and consensus.

They did this for forty-five minutes. Jury deliberations in previous trials had rarely lasted more than ten, and the end of the class day was rapidly approaching. The other instructor and I looked at each other in amazement, furiously taking notes so we could quote the students in our evaluations. It never even occurred to me to worry about what our teaching assistants were doing to amuse the eighteen kids waiting in the auditorium. We only stopped deliberations when we literally ran out of time. A few of the jurors volunteered to forego activity period in order to keep working, but this was against camp rules. So, at 2:59 we took one final vote on each charge.

The final results mirrored conclusions reached in previous classes — they failed to convict Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus or waging an undeclared war. The only charge on which they managed to come to a unanimous decision was misappropriation of funds. For sending War Department money to Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana (so that he could run his state without calling the legislature into session), the 10 jurors recommended that Congress impeach Abraham Lincoln. It is perhaps one of the more interesting legacies of the Reagan Revolution that the only offense for which an elected official can never be forgiven is to waste the taxpayers’ money. But I digress.

Because it was the process that made me so proud. Each one of those ten students found his or her voice that afternoon, and even more amazing — given their potential role models in the world of talk radio and cable news — they had acknowledged that the other students in the circle also had voices worth listening to. I wish I’d had a video camera to sneak into the hallway, so I could show the whole class, or even the whole camp, this impressive discussion. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was the democratic process in a nutshell: time-consuming and somewhat fruitless in terms of actual results, but still thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, and full of surprises.

Ups and Downs in Campus Programming

This past Saturday I took some students on a trip to Fort Fisher. Things didn’t quite go according to plan. It rained on and off during the drive there, and then we had about 40 minutes of windy, overcast partial sunshine before it began to pour. We waited for a while to see if things cleared up, but eventually had to cancel the rest of our planned tour. All the trip participants were very good sports about it, but it was a huge disappointment. I did get one group picture in relative sunshine.

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I guess we can’t have huge successes at all times. I had a great turnout for Dr. Jacqueline Campbell’s guest lecture last Tuesday, and then History Movie Night was packed, so two very successful events out of three in a week isn’t a bad record.

First time I've seen it on a real bookshelf!
First time I’ve seen it on a real bookshelf!
Some of us took a quick walk over to the beach when we arrived.
Some of us took a quick walk over to the beach when we arrived.

Abe Lincoln, Colombia, and Cognitive Dissonance

Last week, my younger sister went to Colombia with her choir, Cantigas. She sent me this picture from their first performance venue, the Abraham Lincoln Auditorium at Centro Columbo Americano.

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It got me wondering about the ways that Abraham Lincoln and the US Civil War might be remembered in South America. I did a ridiculously quick google search and discovered that there are many schools named Colegio Abraham Lincoln throughout Colombia, Peru, and other South American nations. Most of them were founded about 60 years ago. Lincoln certainly has a very positive image in Colombia. I am reminded of Scott Hartwig’s comments during the concluding panel at the 2013 Gettysburg Civil War Institute Summer Conference — he noted the many international visitors who come to Gettysburg out of reverence for Lincoln, the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the ideals that he therefore represents.

At the same time, I was setting up assignments for students in my introductory African American history course — we are entering the early twentieth century, often called the “nadir of American race relations.” It’s very clear that the violence that plagued the U.S. as an integral component of maintaining white supremacy was not unique. Things were pretty bad for Afro-Latin Americans as well. The story I tell to encapsulate all the trends of this era is Colombia’s 1928 Banana Massacre. The image of the United States in commemorative artwork related to the Banana Massacre is decidedly less positive.

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I have to wonder which version of US leadership Colombians really think of first. Do people hate U.S. economic and military power as it was projected through much of the twentieth century, but revere American ideology as represented by Lincoln? Or do different people focus on different things — I wonder who attends the various Colegios Abraham Lincoln, and if they are specific to one class or race in Colombian society. The timing of their founding is significant as well, I think, which makes me wonder who created those schools. For a U.S. government eager to win South American hearts and minds in the midst of the Cold War, Abraham Lincoln was definitely a better image than the United Fruit Company. And the 1950s and 1960s were a period of black civil rights activism in Latin America as well as the U.S., so if they were created by Afro-Colombian activists — or by governments looking to make at least some improvements — the name could reflect some idea of Lincoln as a human rights icon.

So the fall semester is well underway…

Is it really almost October? Last Monday we hit the 1/3 mark, which for me means really truly starting the Civil War (with armies & battles & stuff) in my Civil War era course — and that students in the course submitted proposals for their research papers this week. I assigned a set of three “progress reports” on the way toward their paper, this semester timed to coincide with Fridays I must miss class for conferences. So they are posting their proposals on the class blog (a private Blackboard blog — I didn’t feel like setting up something new for three blog posts over the course of the semester), and then were assigned commenting roles for their classmates’ posts. They posted on Friday morning and I immediately skimmed each proposal to match them with appropriate commenters, but I just now read their comments.

I’m really impressed with the quality of their work and their willingness to help each other out. I’m also excited about the breadth and specificity of their proposed research. Collectively, they have proposed a wide range of topics; individually, they seem to understand the need to focus their attention. Not one person has proposed a paper in which they will tell me everything that went wrong for the Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Gettysburg. Instead, they want to write about foreign policy, the war’s impact on universities, and the origins of the Black Codes. Several have proposed papers related to women or children. The topics with a more military bent are creative as well: how communities coped with the aftermath of a nearby battle, soldiers’ responses to the Gettysburg Address, desertion, guerilla warfare, etc.

In this first assignment, they proposed a topic and summarized the primary source material they’d found so far — mostly so that I know they have enough to work with. Next, they will locate and summarize secondary sources, to demonstrate their understanding of the scholarly debates related to their topics and craft a strong research question. They’ll then go back to the primary sources to put their arguments and examples together. The third blog post they share with the class will actually be a research poster summarizing their papers, which will be in draft stage at that point. At each stage, they get comments from me and their peers, which should help them write better papers. The paper itself is due a week after the research poster.

One of the things we’re trying to emphasize in our revamped methods course is the collaborative nature of good historical research and writing. The research process — especially revision — is another, which is why I want them to share their posters before submitting their final drafts. It will give them a chance to test their arguments and best examples. I’m curious to see how things go this semester. I think we are off to a good start so far!

Building a DH Working Group

Yesterday afternoon I met with two colleagues to begin building a Digital Humanities presence on our campus. We are deliberately starting small, but with an interdisciplinary core: we have a geographer (with an archaeology background), a lit theorist, and an historian. All of us are teaching courses this spring that leave themselves open to a lot of possibilities: Intro GIS, Historical Methods, and Literary Criticism. Jesse‘s goal is to “humanistically inflect” his GIS class (which tends to draw a lot of environmental scientists), while Therese and I work to “digitally inflect” our humanities offerings. We left the meeting with both short-term and long-term goals, as well as a specific schedule and assignments for our next meeting, so I am optimistic that we’ll be able to get the ball rolling this year.

Which Learning Objectives?

Last Monday, a student came into my office for advice. He’s one of our Social Studies Ed majors, and he had just finished his first day of his teaching internship. He was already looking ahead to graduation and the possibility that he would be able to get an available position at one of our local high schools in December. He was concerned, however, that taking this position would mean teaching African American History, even though he had no specific undergraduate coursework in the field. He came to me, presumably, because I teach most of our institution’s Af-Am classes.

He expressed several concerns: teaching in a subject that was not particularly familiar (although he said he preferred any kind of U.S. History to World History); establishing both rapport and authority as a white teacher of African American History with predominantly black students; navigating the many layers of racial tension in our poor, rural county. He hit me in a vulnerable spot, and I’m not sure I gave him terribly good advice.

I became responsible for African American History at my university by accident. My research projects required a strong background in late antebellum U.S. slavery — which makes me about as much of an expert as we have, particularly in the pre-emancipation period. But there was significant student demand for a general education African American History course, so I created one. Our student body is about 35% African American — but this particular class attracts black students almost exclusively. So I feel more than a little of what this student was worried about, especially this year.

I’ve been watching #FergusonSyllabus with interest and awe, trying to figure out where to make room in a class that must span the entire western hemisphere from 1500 to the present, wondering just how much current events I’m comfortable inserting into a history class, and worrying that any step I take in that direction could blow up in my face. I agree with the argument these professors are making that we have a responsibility to teach matters of public concern and prepare our students to engage in public debate, but I also feel most effective as a teacher when I have a good organizational plan and at least basic mastery of the subject at hand.

To return to the young man in my office last Monday: I told him that the tools he had learned in his pedagogy classes should be his starting points regardless of the subject material. What are the learning objectives? What classroom activities and assignments would best convey each objective? Remember that the purpose of history class is not to make people feel good or bad about their ancestors. I told him what my vocal pedagogy teacher told me in college: your job, as a teacher, is to help each student move forward one step from where he or she stands right now. Especially if he was going to pick up a class just a few weeks from the end of the semester, a few key concepts would have to do. I told him to figure out what those concepts should be by learning the current major debates in the field, something he should have learned to do in his history courses. Finally, I told him that African American History is American History, and so he should have a good sense of its basic contours from the 4-6 U.S. History courses he had taken with us.

This last part is the thing I’m not sure I conveyed as well as I wanted to. Putting the black freedom struggle at the center of U.S. History is certainly the right way to go, but I doubt that’s what he heard — I’m sure he was thinking, when he walked out of my office, that all he needed to do was go through the basic events from a generic U.S. History survey course but talk about black people, and he’d be fine. And if thrown into a classroom with two days’ notice and four weeks until the end of term, it’s probably not the worst solution, but it’s not what we should really be striving for. Because truly approaching U.S. History from the perspectives of African Americans means we will end up changing the questions we ask and the very framework of the course.

I don’t know if I do this enough. Designing a #FergusonSyllabus would have been one approach, but I don’t know how I could have done that and been properly organized for the semester (especially this semester, when I have a weirdly large number of conferences to attend, and have to prepare class activities for other people to cover). I probably do it well in the areas I really know: after being assigned Eric Foner’s Reconstruction four years in a row beginning my junior year of college, I put black political actors at the center of Reconstruction in every class, not just African American History. Runaway slaves drive wartime emancipation, Wilmington 1898 was a coup d’etat, and Joann Robinson is the real heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For many students, this is sufficiently revelatory.

So which learning objectives make the cut? I’m only half-joking when I say I’d be happy if students ended the class knowing there was more to the Civil Rights Movement than the “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks being tired one day. I want them to know that for each “big moment” they’ve heard about during Black History Month, there was decades of preparation and grass-roots work by dozens (or hundreds) of regular people. I want them to know that a demand for economic justice was always part of struggles for civil rights. I want them to be able to trace and identify long-term historic roots of current events — and so we will talk about redlining and state-sanctioned violence and the many events erroneously termed “race riots.” I want them to read and analyze primary sources. Will it be a #FergusonSyllabus? I doubt it. But I hope the end result will move slightly in that direction, providing students with the groundwork for engaging in a more informed public discourse.

A Digitally-Inflected Historical Methods Course

Yesterday was the first day since the seminar began that I didn’t post anything to my blog — but I will make up for it today with a long one. Last summer, I worked with a group of three colleagues to revamp our undergraduate methods course (and even spent about 90 minutes on the phone with Jeff McClurken to hear about the decisions UMW’s History Department had made when doing the same thing the previous year). I remember saying at the time that we should include some digital history, but since I didn’t have any good ideas about how we might do that, neither of my colleagues were willing to jump on my bandwagon. But I will be teaching the course in Spring 2015, and now I have some tools and concepts to incorporate.

All History and Social Studies Education students take this course, ideally in the second semester of their sophomore years or first semester of their junior years. The goal is to serve as a pivot from introductory courses to more advanced ones, giving students tools they can use in all their upper-level history courses. That goal is a key factor, for me, in which Digital History tools I want to emphasize (as well as which assignments I absolutely cannot change). We have broken down the course objectives into their constituent parts, and created a shell of five modules that will emphasize specific skills and ideas, regardless of which person teaches the course and what its content focus is at any point in time. The whole thing is still very much a work in progress, which means it’s a great time to incorporate new methods.

So here are some thoughts I had, broken down by course objective.

HST 3000: Historical Practice and Theory (Spring 2015)

Description & Goals: This three credit hour course is an introduction to key concepts and skills essential to the work of professional historians. This includes the following topics: the nature and types of history; the critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources; efficient and ethical research practices; writing skills; documentation style; and presentation and public speaking skills. The course is required for history majors, and it should be taken at the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior year. This course is designed to prepare students for success in all upper level History courses. This course also fulfills the Writing in the Discipline (WD) requirement.

Communication skills (writing and speaking/presentation)

  • Use Blackboard internal wiki to do initial drafting/commenting/revision workshop (and then repeat at least once with the drafting/peer review/revision process for another assignment)—I have a feeling students wouldn’t want to make this experience public
  • WordPress blog with weekly posts (instead of weekly Blackboard journals or internal Blackboard blog)
  • Use Animoto to make a movie version of their project proposal, instead of giving an in-class presentation (keep other presentations)

Critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources

  • first step here is in-class modeling of how we analyze a primary source, next is to send students out to find new sources—different types—and practice that analysis: one example is to use ThingLink to annotate an image they’ve found (as their blog post/journal entry for the week)
  • I liked Diane’s post about text-mining runaway slave ads—use those or Documenting the American South slave narratives as the basis for a text-mining assignment and blog post or journal
  • transcription & metadata for one primary source item—I want them to understand what goes into creating the primary sources they find online (and then write blog post or journal entry about the experience)
  • use wikis to do parts of historiography jigsaw assignment (each student in a group contributes information about an important question/theme in that group’s subfield, based on book reviews and/or journal articles, some of which I select for them) outside of class
  • Write History Engine episode? (I don’t know if there’s time for this in the existing structure—it requires a lot of revision. But it fits with the goals of the course [one of which is to ingrain the habit of revising all written work], so I’ll see how the calendar works out.)

Efficient and ethical research practices

  • Use Bookworm (Chronicling America option) to identify appropriate keywords for searching other databases (esp. primary sources)
  • Work in Zotero: selecting and monitoring appropriate citation formats based on document type, organizing materials, taking notes, exporting into footnotes/bibliography/annotated bibliography

*The course overall builds to final paper of about 3000 words—that needs to remain because it’s a departmental priority. The standard book review also needs to remain, as do at least some of the in-class presentations. Since one of the course goals is to practice skills students will use in all upper-level courses, the assignments need to line up with what they are likely to see elsewhere. I also still need to use Blackboard on occasion (our Writing Across the Curriculum QEP requires that we submit and grade one assignment using a common Waypoint Rubric, and Blackboard is our route into that).

Text Mining

Below is a Bookworm chart I made with the Chronicling America newspaper collection. I used the search terms “bank,” “credit,” and “currency” for the years 1836-1900. Note the huge spike for the Election of 1840 — followed by precipitous drop in financial issues as a subject of political debate — and then the smaller spikes for Panics in 1857, 1873, and 1893. No big surprises here, but it is nice to see the visualization.

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This could be an interesting exercise with students — asking them to search words they think are important, and then see if they were right. (And what do they think it means if they weren’t?) Or they could test different terms and phrases related to their topics, which would improve their ability to work with other primary source databases.

Some “distant reading” on newspapers, court proceedings, business records, etc. related to my Wilmington project would probably be helpful — but most of the relevant sources haven’t been put into appropriate formats. Uncorrected OCR for 19th century newspapers is pretty unreliable.

History, Memory, and Reclaiming Space

I spent a few hours Saturday wandering around Old Town Alexandria, which was a part of the DC Metro area I’d never visited before. I studiously avoided King Street (is it just me, or do all of the “one-of-a-kind” stores in historic-touristy areas sell the exact same stuff?) and instead checked out two colonial-era churches and meandered down side streets. The architecture was charming and had a comforting familiarity — the historic section of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, my birthplace, is from the same period and has a similar look. But I was especially interested to see the building that once housed one of the largest slave markets in North America.

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Price Birch & Co., 1862 (Library of Congress)
the same space, 150 years later
the same space, 150 years later

The slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield purchased property on Duke Street in Alexandria in 1835, using the space to collect large numbers of slaves purchased in Virginia and Maryland before sending enslaved men and women via ship to their complementary auction house in New Orleans. A different partnership (Price Birch & Co.) owned the business when the Civil War began, and many Union soldiers gleefully reported the immediate demise of that business when they occupied Alexandria in the first months of the war. (This was one of those moments where Union soldiers, though generally not abolitionists, demonstrated a clear sense that slavery was bad for the country and had caused the war, and thus should be destroyed.)

Re-purposing the space began almost immediately — the U.S. Army turned the building and its accompanying grounds into a prison for Confederate soldiers. Most of these men were imprisoned in 1861 and 1862, while the prisoner-exchange system was still under way, and so did not spend much time in the prison, but imprisoning white southerners in a slave pen must have provoked outrage at many levels. [Interesting side note: 34 of the men died while in prison and were buried in a section of the city’s cemetery, just a few blocks away, along with Union dead from area hospitals, in what is now known as the Alexandria National Cemetery. In 1879, the Alexandria LMA disinterred the 34 bodies and buried them in a mounded grave in the yard of Christ Church.]

Alexandria National Cemetery
Alexandria National Cemetery
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marker in Christ Church yard

By 1863, the building and its grounds had become a hospital and barracks for local “contrabands” (runaway slaves) and black Union soldiers. It seems an insensitive move on the part of the US government — but someone (who?) named the barracks in honor of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The same year, a new African American congregation emerged in the city and built its first worship space — Shiloh Baptist Church — across the street. It looks like the formerly enslaved men and women who flocked to Alexandria during the war were determined to claim this space, once associated with deep suffering, and turn it into something much more positive.

The slave pens were torn down after the war, their place eventually filled by a nondescript brick municipal building, and the block’s tragic history slowly forgotten. For a town that can’t shut up about George Washington and its historic attractions, there is a great deal of willful forgetting at play. But the Northern Virginia Urban League purchased the building in 1996, christened it Freedom House, and are using it as offices and a museum (sadly, one geared toward school groups and closed on weekends). A state historic marker was placed outside in 2005. And the woman I spoke with at the Old Town Visitors’ Center was very eager to tell me about the restoration work underway at the Freedmen’s Cemetery on the south end of town (unfortunately out of walking distance) — so signs of progress abound in Alexandria’s interpretation of its past.

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I am very interested in the process by which a community reclaims a space and, without forgetting or minimizing negative associations, strives to create something more affirming there. Who gets to control those commemorations? What happens to dissenting voices? (Was there anyone in the Northern Virginia Urban League, for example, who objected to working in a former slave trader’s office?) It seems like an approach that could work for student projects in various types of classes — local history, public history, history and memory, etc.

I’m also curious about the black communities that emerged in Alexandria during the Civil War. There’s been some great work done on political activism in contraband/refugee camps (Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land, Patricia Click’s Time Full of Trial, and David Cecelski’s The Fire of Freedom spring to mind), so the specific story of Alexandria probably fits into established historiographic patterns and arguments. It strikes me that what happened in these spaces goes far beyond a “rehearsal” for Reconstruction, and I wonder if some comparative studies might be the logical next step.

Christ Church gate & steeple--just because I think it's pretty
Christ Church gate & steeple–just because I think it’s pretty