The Power of Place in Teaching Hard Histories

37056740_10212838045569076_2395403690199482368_oDid you know that Spittal Pond in Bermuda was the spot where an enslaved man named Jeffrey hid from his masters in a cave, on a cliff, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean? Did you also know that during that time he developed a romantic relationship with another enslaved woman who brought him food and other supplies and helped him survive exile until his unfortunate capture several days later? Were you aware that enslaved Africans hand-made every brick at the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana using mud from the Mississippi River, even during oppressively hot, dangerous conditions? Despite these tribulations,the enslaved gathered on Sundays to participate in church services and sing songs of hope and gospel.

As a teacher and a former student myself, I have come to realize that before you can truly understand and grapple with hard histories, you must understand that the people who lived them were more than victims and the places where these stories were lived, were more than the sites of grave violence. These people and places were the makers of life. These individuals had identities, families, hopes, dreams, and in many cases, created humanity at a time where conditions or the choices of others were inhumane. Additionally, they resisted both actively and passively for the life they knew they deserved.

Personally, this belief in the power of place and the power of individual stories has led me around the world to places like Navajo Nation, Ghana, England, and Canyonlands to name a few. Professionally, it has inspired me to apply this same lens in the classroom with my students. I teach humanities at Alma del Mar Charter Public School in New Bedford. Our school model is based on the concept of expeditionary learning, which means that I have the ability to help my students experience the power of people and place through hands-on-learning. It also means that the school values my own learning and exposure to the material that I teach. This past year, my school provided all teachers the opportunity to apply to a fund called the Alma-zing fund, which covered the costs of our summer travel to places that would deepen our understanding of the world and the topics that we would be teaching this fall. The idea that I could travel to Bermuda and New Orleans to learn on a school funded trip was incredible.

Thanks to the Alma-zing fund, this summer I visited places and talked to people that deepened my understanding  of slavery, the slave trade, the Civil War, and African Diaspora. This experience taught me the importance of teaching this history while keeping people, places, and their rich stories at the forefront of all lessons. One such story was about a man named Joseph Rainey and a place called The Tucker House.

Joseph Rainey lived in the Tucker House in St. George Bermuda before slavery ended in the United States. He fled with his wife to Bermuda, escaping his master and overseer. Upon arriving safely in Bermuda he styled and cut hair for the rich and famous to make a living. His success led him to move to the city of Hamilton. Eventually Yellow Fever broke out in Bermuda and he was scared for the safety and health of his family. He decided to take all of the money he had saved and move back to the United States. He joined the Republican Party and eventually was the first black person to serve on the United States Congress.

This story was inspiring, but it was not the only story woven throughout the contents and history of The Tucker House. The Tucker House was riddled with information that I never knew existed ranging from Spies and the experiences of the Bermudian enslaved. We saw the beds they slept in, the kitchens they cooked in, and the grounds they tended. At that moment Joseph Rainey and his wife became more than artifacts in a tangled history; they were flesh and blood, brought to life by the stories tucked into every corner of the place they inhabited. Thanks to this opportunity, not only do I have photos to share with my scholars of the places where this history came to life, but I have personal stories to share about the people who lived this history so that my scholars can begin their own journey to understanding the power of the places and the people that came before us.

Posted in Alma Profiles, Team

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