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How Do You Teach Slavery?

In 2013, Azie Mira Dungey, an actress working as a re-enactor at Mount Vernon, launched a web series based on the questions she got from tourists. The series, called Ask A Slave featured the host in character as Lizzie Mae, an enslaved handmaiden to George Washington, answering real questions she’d received from tourists.

A year later, Margaret Biser, a historic site tour guide, launched a Twitter account to share observations from misinformed visitors.

And in 2016, Bill O’Reilly, whose name appears in the byline of several books about history, found himself defending an assertion about the relative comfort of the slaves who helped build the White House.

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How did such a wide, varied and inaccurate understanding of slavery come about? Possibly because slavery isn’t taught effectively in many schools. One textbook in Texas called enslaved people “workers from Africa”. And a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project found that students had little knowledge of slavery and its effects on society.

As historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries writes in the report’s preface:

The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us. If the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery, then what does that say about those who revere the people who took up arms to keep African Americans in chains? If James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, could hold people in bondage his entire life, refusing to free a single soul even upon his death, then what does that say about our nation’s founders? About our nation itself?

“Slavery is hard history,” Jeffries writes. So, besides accurate textbooks, what does it take to teach it effectively?


Hasan Kwame Jeffries, PhD., Chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board and associate professor of history at Ohio State University; @profjeffries

Adam Sanchez, High school history teacher, editor of “Rethinking Schools” magazine and Zinn Education Project organizer and curriculum writer

Maureen Costello, Director of Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center; @MCostelloTT

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