Teaching United States History at an HBCU

In August, I began an exciting new journey in my academic career. I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University, a Historically Black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina. As excited as I was to begin this new chapter in my teaching career, I began to ask myself: what is my responsibility in teaching history to these students at an HBCU?

For years, I have had the opportunity to teach students at the University of South Carolina in a variety of classes, from U.S. history to being a TA for European History. As an instructor of record, I’ve tackled several classes on Southern history at the university. In those courses on Southern history, I took serious effort to move away from a focus on the stories of wealthy white men–in this case, those who were trying to build a “New South” after the Reconstruction period–towards a fuller picture of the South. This meant including the stories of women, African Americans, poorer whites, and other mostly marginalized groups. I often wonder how well I achieved that objective.

But at an HBCU, I felt a different desire. I knew I had to continue to do my best to give a fuller account of the past through a variety of voices and sources. However, I also knew that my job at an HBCU isn’t simply to teach. I thought about this as I began to meet my students the first full week of classes. I wanted to know what they had learned in school before coming to college.

Many of my students at Claflin–as it is the case at many HBCUs–are first generation college students. There is a pride in their families that these young men and women have made it this far to college. I know what they’re feeling too–I am also a first-generation college student. So there is both the joy of being on a college campus, and the determination to do well precisely because you know your family is rooting for you.

Also, history has a unique place in the African American community. Unlike the United States as a whole, the African American community does not have the luxury of being a history wasteland. Often, such history is the only refuge African Americans have in a still sometimes-hostile world. This isn’t to say the history should be “feel-good”; on the contrary, it should be honest and forthright about the struggles of the past. But there is a sense, teaching at Claflin, of not merely talking about the past, but including my students on a journey to the past–to better understand their place in the here and now.

I hope to devote my upcoming posts to this question of teaching United States history at an HBCU. I look forward to you joining me on that journey.

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