The year 2020 will long be remembered – mostly for all the wrong reasons – as a year like no other. In addition to the COVID 19 pandemic and the tumultuous presidential contest, the country was caught up in a wave of reckoning over issues of social justice, brought to the forefront by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jesús A. Tirado, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the college’s Secondary Social Science Education program, wanted his students to do more than watch these events unfold on the news. He wanted them to get a feel for how we came to be who we are, and to do so close to home.
“As we emphasize in our annual World Affairs Youth Seminar, our program seeks to help our students understand democracy in all of its complexities,” Tirado said. “A foundational principle of our democracy is that ‘all men are created equal.’ A careful look into our history shows that principle has not always been true. As our students learn about history, they learn that keeping our democracy requires active participation and confronting uncomfortable situations.”
Near the end of the fall semester, Tirado allowed his students to get up close to history by visiting Pebble Hill, a former slave plantation near the Auburn campus that now serves as the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities at Auburn University.
The students were met at Pebble Hill by director Mark Wilson, who took them on a tour of the original plantation house. Under his expert guidance, the students were allowed to see artifacts and documents that record the history of the Creek Indians who inhabited East Alabama prior to the arrival of the white man in the 1830s. Ultimately, the Treaty of Washington, which would cede Creek possession of the land east of the Mississippi but still provide 320 acres for each Creek head of household, led to almost unimaginable violence and fraud. Four years later the Creeks were homeless, and forcibly removed from their ancestral lands.
In addition to learning about the Creek Indians, Wilson showed the students the rolls of those who lived at Pebble Hill, which was built in 1846 by one of the early founders of Auburn, Nathaniel Scott. In an 1850 census, Scott was shown to own 38 enslaved African-Americans who lived on or about the Pebble Hill grounds. Ten years later Scott owned more than 60 slaves. The rolls show everything about the individual slaves – except for their names.
Pebble Hill is just one of the former slaveholding plantations in Auburn. Others include Noble Hall on Shelton Mill Road, and Sunny Slope, which now serves as the home for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn University.
In addition to their visit to Pebble Hill, the students were also able to have a live Zoom visit with Renee Moore, a renowned African-American school teacher in the Mississippi Delta. Moore has taught English at all-black high schools in the Cleveland, Mississippi, area for the past 25 years.
Moore was the subject of a profile in The Atlantic magazine’s “On Teaching” series that focused on the wisdom of veteran teachers. Her message was that schools should serve not only as a vehicle for individual advancement, but as a way to lift up the entire community:
Moore recalls her majority-black schools in Detroit in the ’50s and ’60s as places that promoted communal activities and collective responsibility. Students who advanced were expected to help their classmates and in the process solidify their own comprehension and learn valuable skills, such as respect and patience. No sorting based on perceived ability meant something else, Moore says: “Teachers treated us like we were all capable of learning and leading. They didn’t view education as a zero-sum commodity used for competition for diplomas and jobs. All children deserved high-quality education, because it was a path to freedom, citizenship, and the ability to improve your community and the nation.”
Much of the Zoom discussion revolved around how teachers could build community through remote classes, reflecting the situation so many young teachers face in this time of the pandemic. Moore also engaged the students in questioning what they wanted to see in their classrooms in the coming years, and the importance of being truly engaged with their students.
“Overall, this was just a way to use the resources and living history that surrounds us here to help our students see that history is real, and not just something in a book,” Tirado said. “With so much energy and passion in the country right now, our students are eager to share their love of learning and insights into democracy in their own future classrooms. I am glad we had the opportunity to do this. These are fine students who will be great teachers someday soon. I know they will do well in service to their students. Seeing history first-hand, and getting to meet teachers like Mrs. Moore, will inspire them on their journeys.”