US history

The History of History during this Academic School Year (1 of 4)

Looking Back in Order to Move Forward

~ Brandon Grunden, Upper School Humanities Teacher, History

It never fails, and people close to me probably get sick of me saying it, but at the end of every school year, when I look back, I am amazed at how fast it went. As one of my colleagues said, “The days are long and the years are short.” What a true statement. With that in mind, I am now finishing up my fifth year as a history teacher and as I look into the rearview mirror of this school year, I have to say this was definitely a fruitful year for my students and for me. But, before I begin to look too forward into planning for next school year, I’d like to take some time to unpack the “sparknotes” version of what was done in history class this past year and, in some cases, provide subtle hints at themes we will be focusing on next year. Due to the lengthy nature of reviewing six courses, this post will be split up into four separate posts, one for each trimester and one that offers my takeaways from the school year. As you read these please do forgive the inconsistencies and often rushed feel in narrative structure as I reflect on the year. You see, each class forced me to think about and write about each class differently.  

For the first trimester, students in 8th grade get a taste of the limits of historical knowledge while learning about the time period just before what we consider to be the Modern Era. Next, the seniors travel west with the Joads during the Great Depression and are alarmed at how people took advantage of others during that time period though we ultimately focus on the hope that exists not only in that novel, but in other written works that highlight the selfless acts of others.  The last course in focus is Modern World History II, where we see humanity at its worst while drawing attention to, and shining a spotlight, on a couple of humanity’s best.

Medieval/ Renaissance History, “What do you mean you don’t know how Stonehenge got there?”

The above quote was uttered in that wonderful, music to our ears, annoyed kind of tone, in response to me telling a student that I didn’t know how the Stonehenge Monument was placed in the fields of Wiltshire, England. Of course, we read King Arthur and according to Arthurian legend, Merlin is responsible for placing the giant stones there. For Geoffrey of Monmouth, from King Arthur, the answer wasn’t good enough though. Evidently, neither was mine, apparent when I gave my response that I, a history teacher, didn’t know a fact about something in history. This lesson will always be a success because it forces students to search for those elusive answers that still plague historians and archaeologists. In an educational climate dominated by standardized testing, these types of lessons are an undervalued commodity because these moments spark the flame of curiosity that should follow students to other subjects and future school years.  

The curiosity sparked in that lesson continued as we spent time learning about and discussing Feudalism in Europe as we took part in a trebuchet catapult competition, highlighting changes in military technology brought on by the Crusades. Though in the classroom we had marshmallows flying around as opposed to the historically preferred lit or unlit projectiles. We finished with mini-research projects on individuals who made a contribution in the Renaissance time period in their respective art form. By the end of the course students still didn’t know exactly how Stonehenge was erected. However, they gained insight into this time period through the many novels and activities they participated in. Of course, there were moments where I was able to tell students I knew how something happened during this time period.

U.S. History II (Civil War – Present), “I’m telling ya’ll, The Grapes of Wrath ends on a hopeful note.”

Ah, the discussion that ended our reading of The Grapes of Wrath, which is one of the pieces of literature that is part of the US History curriculum. Some students had a hard time seeing the hopeful tones at the end of this dynamic text. However, this particular student saw hope and argued it quite well. Hope is another undervalued and, maybe more appropriately, devalued commodity. Hope wasn’t the goal of a theme for this course at the outset, but by the time we got to the Civil Rights Movement, we saw that hope is what propelled the Freedom Fighters through. Hope was what kept the Joads forging westward. Hope needs to be a part of our daily lives so that we too can benefit from pushing and challenging ourselves to do and be better, despite the many hurdles that are in front of us. As a class, we made sure to discuss those small movements, those people who become overshadowed by the big names and big events in history, because it was their hope that was the foundation for any, and all, exceptional movements for the rights of minorities in this country.

These small movements that make up big movements are reinforced by the text, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. This text walks us through a historian’s life from the time he takes his first teaching job in the South, in the year 1956, through to the eighties. The book also circles back to his early life in New York City during the Great Depression, encompassing his service as a bombardier in World War II, then brings us to the present day (1992), the moment he decided to write this book. Howard Zinn, the author, reminds us that democracy is not a spectator sport, that there are moments when one must be active in order to hang on to the rights and liberties afforded to us by the Constitution and by the Supreme Court. We also saw the importance in fighting for the rights of others. By the end of his autobiography, due to his experiences in the struggles for rights and freedoms, he leaves us with the notion of being hopeful during difficult times.

World History and Christian Heritage II (WW I – Present), “Seeing ourselves as we study history.”

During this school year, this course became a combination of the individual history and theology courses, led by Michael Hornbaker (Upper School Lead Teacher and our theology and Latin teacher). As we were reading and discussing The Heart of Darkness and All Quiet on the Western Front, it didn’t take long to begin talking about the idea of seeing ourselves as we read about and learn more about things that happened in history. We read and discussed the White Man’s Burden, while learning about the Scramble for Africa, and spent most of the trimester discussing the impact of the World Wars on global society, then and now. While learning about the major events of the 20th-century students also traced their ancestry back four generations, which culminated in creating a family tree with pictures and stories to accompany the tree. This project helped create a familial context for students so that while they were learning about their family lineage and global events in the 20th century, they could easily make the connection that all of these events happened in the lifetimes of the family members they were learning about. Students used and, with the help of Michael, were able to learn a lot about their local family history.  

During the course, and largely throughout the end of the course, the theme of forgiveness kept coming up. Having learned from the tragedies of the 20th century, and thinking about what we do with this information, we kept coming back to the need for forgiveness. True forgiveness, we learned, is extremely difficult but extremely necessary, especially for a Christian in a broken world. Reading from, and discussing, the works of giants in modern Christian Theology, Bonhoeffer and Tutu, helped to make more clear what it means to forgive though that particular challenge is still very much in front of us.

To conclude, the first trimester was extremely valuable in ways beyond students learning the facts of history. Facts are simply just facts, but I want each of the students to go beyond the facts in understanding how history has the ability to shape us in various ways. The first 13 weeks taught students to seek out those difficult answers, ways to see hope in difficult times, and the need for forgiveness in our lives. This trimester would serve as a springboard into the second trimester where students in 9th and 11th grade would be studying the same time period but from two different perspectives: Modern World History I and U.S. History I. Both time periods begin with the Age of Exploration. However, in U.S. History we learn more about the lives of the indigenous people and in World History we focus on the motives of the Europeans. Stay tuned for this next blog post!

And His Name was Frederick

This assignment, written by Reuel Goins, is the culmination of their end of trimester research paper in Mr. Grunden’s U.S. History class. At the beginning of the Trimester, the students choose who they want to write about from a list of prominent figures in early U.S. and Native American History, up to the Civil War era.  Reuel chose to write about Douglass.

The plight of African-Americans in history is one that fascinates many people. The trials and tribulations that so many people experienced have created a beautiful landscape of stories that express themselves in poetry, music, literature, paintings and film. More than all of this, it has created a select group of people whom the public is now celebrating as national heroes.

These people in times of great sacrifice have stood up not only for the rights of their people but for the rights of all people who face oppression. The ideas that these men and women embody will stand the test of time and will always contribute to the idea of human freedom. Frederick Douglass, born a slave, died a saving grace, is a man whose contribution to the abolition of slavery revolutionized the very act of revolution.

To understand the importance of Frederick Douglass, one must first understand what he fought against. Frederick Douglass fought against the epidemic of racism that had planted its roots so deeply in his times. In his fight, he spoke for the unalienable rights of all human beings, no matter which class, race or gender. His biggest victory was against the most negative and immediate manifestation of these dark institutions. Slavery.

Slavery is a system in which select human beings are the legal property of another human being and are forced under their rule. It has existed for thousands of years and has shaped countless cultures. Slave status may be decided by several factors, but some are race, gender, and socioeconomic status. It is not uncommon for a slave to have been someone working off a debt. It is also not uncommon for a slave to have belonged to a family who had been toiling the same job for generations.

Although slavery is not unique to any one country, the United States is home to a rare, violent and explosive history with it. The North and South American regions which were commonly referred to as “the New World” offered the idea of utopia for many European travelers. These travelers were facing religious persecution and sought a place to safely practice their beliefs. This new world offered something much better. The New World was malleable, people with power came and saw fit to mold the place into an image more tailored to suit them. There were grand intentions and exciting possibilities (The Slave Experience: Living Conditions)

To harness the crops and tools necessary for their new world, the colonists relied on slavery, something they had experience with in their country of England. Slavery was the perfect solution because the slaves were able bodied and able to produce many things in return for very little (History of Slavery in America). What many envisioned as a fine-oiled, smoothly run machine was actually working to create several problems that would plague future generations.

Early slavery was not documented well, but it is known that the conditions were much better than they would eventually be. Slaves were at the bottom of the social barrel, but many were employed as indentured servants. Indentured servitude was contractual and after a period of time, slaves could become landowners and/or gain their freedom. Anthony Johnson was an African-American indentured servant who became a landowner and eventually a slave-owner himself (History of Slavery in America).

Over time, as the economics of the New World began to progress, a gradual status change became more prominent. The social machine required slaves to be available in larger quantities and to cover more area which, in return, meant harsher conditions. Slaves’ poor social status also translated into a poor public image as the already alienated Europeans began to see them as lesser beings. In 1640 the first black indentured servants became slaves and many followed after that (History of Slavery in America).

Slaves worked in or under brutal physical conditions. They were subject to very little protective clothing, always hungry and worked in different extremes of heat and cold. Their oppression was systematic: light skinned slaves who were often the children of white slave owners and slave women were given higher status than darker slaves which led to feelings of envy and resentment known as pigmentocracy (Pigmentocracy) .

To keep the hate machine that was slavery fueled, dark rhetoric was put into the public consciousness. Those who were in defense of slavery argued that it was a natural occurrence that had been around since the beginning of mankind. The Greeks possessed slaves, the Romans possessed slaves and the colonists needed slaves. The Bible was also used to justify slavery with many citing that there was no specific commandment against it. This created growing feelings of resentment and anger between both classes (The Slave Experience: Living Conditions).

The need for a hero was not simply just to get African-Americans out of their horrible conditions. African-Americans wanted themselves to be taken seriously. They wanted equality, they wanted to be able to stand next to a white man and be seen as the same. They wanted to walk on a street and not be laughed at. They wanted to speak with a proper accent, read, write and wear the same clothes as the white man. Black women wanted to be able to wear their dresses, do their hair and raise their kids just like the white women. All seemed lost until somebody came.

He was born as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in a small Maryland county. His exact birth date was unknown because his birth as a slave kept him from having proper records, but he chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th. Since his first days he was subject to the cruel animosities of slavery. He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey a woman whom he describes as sporting “dark complexion” (Douglass 2) and for reasons he could only speculate.

He was sent to live with his grandmother Betsey because the system deemed that it was more effective that younger slave women would work in the fields whilst the older slave women could raise the children. Douglass speculated that this might also be to break apart the natural bond that co-exists between mother and child. He knew his father was a white man, but did not know who he was, it was whispered around the grapevine that he was his master but this was never confirmed (Biography – Early Life).

Frederick did not know his mother very well. He recalls seeing her “four or five times” in his life and never getting a chance to enjoy her soothing presence or her “tender and watchful care” (Douglass 3). When about seven or eight Frederick had been separated from his grandmother and moved to the Why House plantation. He had no idea why this was and felt betrayed that his grandmother would just leave him, but this part of the journey would end up being one of importance for young Frederick as he would witness the cruelty of slavery. Frederick had many experiences that formulated his opinions (Biography – Early Life). He recalls seeing an aunt of his getting brutally whipped for the slave master’s satisfaction. “He was a cruel man” (Douglass 5) whom would “whip upon her naked back” (Douglass 5) until she was drenched in blood. He whipped her to hear a shriek and whipped her to make her quiet.

Frederick was later given to the Auld family in Baltimore and was a companion to their young child. In Baltimore, he was received well by the wife of Hugh Auld, Sophia. This was Sophia’s first slave under her control and she was kind to young Frederick and graciously taught him how to read. Frederick described her as a women “of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (Douglass 28). He was astonished at her kind heart, she showed no anger, even when given the eye contact of a slave. She possessed the power to put a slave with a heavy heart at ease.

She began teaching Frederick how to read and was jubilant when he could say three and four letter words, when he could recount the ABCs. When Hugh discovered this he scolded her and told her that it was dangerous to teach a slave how to read. If a slave learned how to read it would give him too much power, but also if a slave read it would make him unhappy and discontent with life (Biography – Early Life). These words sparked a fire in Frederick’s brain, he realized the tool that could lead to his freedom. There was a weight to the powerful tool of knowledge, reading and writing would help Frederick get out of his situation.

After the scolding, Frederick’s education did not stop immediately. Sophia found it hard to stop treating Frederick as human beings ought to be treated, but slowly with time she halted the kind behavior. Frederick realized slavery was not only affecting his state, but affected the state of a perfectly sweet woman. He realized its harm in bringing out the worst of every single individual. Still, she had given him enough knowledge that he was able to grow and become the worst fear of the anti-Abolitionist movement.

Later, Frederick Douglass spent every waking moment of his life contemplating the natural state of things, why it was a select few who got to be masters and the rest slaves. How a God could be so benevolent but allow something so cruel to happen to his people? All the cards were stacked up against him, but without gun or sword, simply with reliable knowledge, he was able to make an impression on many including Abraham Lincoln. When the Civil War began in 1861, Douglass made the effort to recruit free black men of the North to fight for their enslaved brothers in the South. This was met with severe backlash, but Frederick continued to write letter after letter stressing the importance of his position. After the Emancipation Proclamation, and writing many more letters, blacks gained the right to enlist. They went from originally receiving minimal pay and low service jobs to making up 9 to 12 percent of the Union army (Douglass’ Role in the Civil War). This progression of the black identity, pioneered by Douglass, continued through years of hard labor by many others led to the 20th of January, 2009. That year the United States swore in its first African-American president and the souls of the dead who dreamed of such possibilities were finally able to rest.

Works Cited

Boston, Nicholas. “The Slave Experience: Living Conditions.” PBS, 2004. Web. 28 Jan. “Biography – Early Life.” Frederick Douglass Heritage: The

Official Website, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

“Douglass Role in the Civil War.” Frederick Douglass

Heritage: The Official Website, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave. Boston:

Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Print. Public Domain.

Harris, Trudier. “Pigmentocracy.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe. National Humanities Center.

Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

“History of Slavery in America.” Open Computing Facility, 2004. Web. 3 Feb.



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