Why “Teaching the Baltimore Uprising”?

Driving down Tower Avenue on my way to school every day, I wondered why there were Jewish cemeteries on my street. Some of the largest churches in the neighborhood appeared to be different in their design from my family’s church; as I grew up, I learned that these Romanesque Revival buildings had been synagogues only a few decades before. I was in complete shock when one of my high school classmates told me that her parents—who were easily twenty years older than mine—grew up only minutes away from my childhood home. When I got home that day, I asked my grandmother about it all. That’s when she told me that she and my grandfather bought the house from a woman who was the last Jewish woman on the street in the 1960s. As an undergraduate, I learned that the population of Hartford’s North End changed as the result of three factors: increased African American migration, increased West Indian immigration, and increased Jewish movement to Hartford’s suburbs as restrictive housing covenants were disappearing. Having lived in a place where I was acutely aware of the shifts in people, communities, and spaces, working to understand the socio-historical underpinnings of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising felt familiar to me. Understanding the Uprising as it unfolded, however, was not.

On April 25, 2015, my oldest son and my father-in-law went to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play the Red Sox. I remember receiving an alert on my phone that the game was going to be called early due to protests, but that fans weren’t being allowed to leave the stadium immediately as a safety precaution. I soon received another revised alert that the game had in fact finished all nine innings, but fans were still being held inside. My husband and I found the alerts to be questionable, so we called my father-in-law to find out what was going on. They were in fact, leaving the stadium, and were on their way home. I continued to follow the story of yet another extrajudicial death of an African American man, but it the story felt far away—thirty-one miles and a world away. Until April 29. When my Introduction to Public History class met.

For a talkative and opinionated group, our class was quiet. The air was heavy, filled with our emotions, questions, and critiques. Slowly, we began to think out loud: We’re public historians. What is our responsibility in this moment? Most of us were following various Facebook and Twitter feeds to get the latest information on protests, news conferences, and the everyday moments of joy that still occurred, no matter what mainstream media reports displayed on repeat. That night in class, the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project was born. We all agreed there needed to be a place for Baltimoreans to share their experiences in whatever format felt right to them. We believed this space needed to exist so that a more complete, nuanced, plural narrative of the Uprising could be told. We knew and openly acknowledged from the beginning that this would be an imperfect public history undertaking, precisely because it occurring in real time. For the rest of the week, I felt like I needed to be doing something, anything, but I was unsure as to what that would look, feel, or sound like. And then my daughter texted me—UMBC’s American Studies department was planning a teach-in on Baltimore, and she was going. It was settled in that moment: I would teach the Uprising to my middle school students. And I did.

This short chronicle of events, thoughts, and actions, both over time and during the Baltimore Uprising grounds my work for this semester. In examining projects focused on contemporary events, such as archive websites (including Preserve the 2015 Baltimore Uprising) and crowdsourced hashtag syllabi, I noted their inaccessibility to teachers and students. Users of online archive projects will find them time consuming and not as intuitive as other, familiar online platforms. Hashtag syllabi (such as the #fergusonsyllabus) tend to exclude K-12 history and social studies teachers; the broad reference to “educators” in these living documents tend to be confined to professors. However, knowledge and understanding of both contemporary events and their socio-historical foundations cannot and should not be confined to the walls of post-secondary institutions. While public historians tend to be wary of social studies classrooms and teachers, I firmly believe that a case can be made for the classroom as being an interpretative space. In “Bringing to Life Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—A How-to Guide”, Jessica Elfenbein pointed out that in many Baltimore schools, “…nobody had ever bothered to teach them about the forces that explain so much about the city in which they and their neighbors still live…”[1] Viewing classrooms as interpretative spaces can both add a new dimension to public history projects, and fill in gaps in school curricula. My project—an online Omeka exhibit composed of three collections—will help teachers and students better understand the Baltimore Uprising, while building students’ historical analysis skills.

The first collection will consist of photographs of children during the Uprising; these photographs can be used in a mini-lesson or warm-up activity in which students practice reading photographs. Since most primary source analysis activities and lessons focus on written documents, teaching students to read photographs will broaden their skill base. The second collection, a digital story, will focus on what it was like to be a child in Baltimore. So much of American History is told from the perspective of adults; this digital story has the potential to create a deeper sense of connection and understanding for students. The third collection will be a mini-unit plan on suburbanization in the Baltimore area. The mini-unit will be aligned to National History Standards, and complete with student-facing materials and other resources. It is in this collection I plan on utilizing Timeline JS and Story Map JS, so that students can see the both the sequence of events, as well as the physical space in which history is occurring.

I also intend on being clear about audience, stance, and purpose with this digital public history project. I do not believe ambiguity should drive this work. In comparing past attempts to chronicle Baltimore’s heritage of race and racism, I was struck by the difference between The Baltimore Book and Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth. Whereas The Baltimore Book sought to deromanticize the city’s singular narrative, centered on Fort McHenry or Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore ’68 made the choice to remain neutral in its commemoration of the 1968 riots, even while claiming inclusivity.[2] I am clear that the work designed this semester will exist to both explain the historic context for the Baltimore Uprising and to illustrate that communities can live and create spaces in which they can thrive, even in the face of systemic injustice.[3]

 

[1] Jessica Elfenbein, “Bringing to Life Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—A How-to Guide,” The Public Historian, Vol 31, No. 4 (Fall 2009), 18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2009.31.4.13

[2] Elfenbein, 21. Also see Thomas Hollowak, “Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—The Building of a Digital Collection,” The Public Historian, Vol 31, No. 4 (Fall 2009), 39,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2009.31.4.37

[3] Karen Olson, “Old West Baltimore: Segregation, African-American Culture, and the Struggle for Equality,” in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History, Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes, and Linda Zeidman, ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 63, 74.

 

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