This lesson is part of a suite of activities developed to accompany How the Word Is Passed by a Zinn Education Project curriculum collective, which also includes Jesse Hagopian, Cierra Kaler-Jones, Ana Rosado, and Bill Bigelow.
Ask any group — children or adults — raised in the United States where slavery occurred in the country, and you will get an overwhelming response: the South.
Of course, the question itself is disingenuous. Slavery was a national institution. It “happened” everywhere. Yet the popular discourse of U.S. history suggests otherwise. We read about “slave states” and “free states” or the “antislavery North” and the “pro-slavery South.”
It becomes all too easy to adopt a host of misconceptions: Slavery was limited in scope; it was a regional anachronism; it did not shape the economy and politics of places where it was illegal to own enslaved people.
And critically, it suggests that when we consider the legacies of slavery — as we have in recent national conversations about everything from Confederate monuments to The New York Times 1619 Project, racist policing to reparations — we are talking mostly about only one part of the country.
This lesson uses excerpts from Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America to invite students to examine their own locales — North and South, East and West, rural and urban — as sites of slavery’s remembering and forgetting.
It asks students to scan their surroundings for historical traces that live beyond the pages of books, to analyze how these sites help or hinder a clear-eyed view of slavery’s legacy, and to share their critical analysis with each other to “map” slavery’s echoes in their own backyards.
High School Theology Teacher, Louisville, Kentucky
We talked about the importance of names and stories and remembering.
It was a difficult lesson for many of my students. Most of them had never discussed the reality of enslavement in Louisville. Some of them didn’t like having to recognize the fact that many, many places in our city are named after enslavers or were places of enslavement. Some of them got mad. It was not unexpected, and we talked about their feelings and why they felt like they did. I don’t know if I was able to reach them like I would have wanted. I do know that they learned something, even if it made them uncomfortable. [Continue reading]