Teaching Hard History with Freedom on the Move

By: Staff,  A&S Communications
May 21, 2020

In this unprecedented era of online teaching, college professors are not the only people who need free digital resources for their classes. Elementary, middle and high school teachers, too, are looking for accessible material to keep their students engaged and learning. To help fill this need, the group of historians, teachers, programmers, and librarians behind Freedom on the Move has launched a series of lesson plans aimed at making their crowdsourced database of fugitive slave ads accessible to K-12 teachers and their students.

Freedom on the Move, housed at Cornell University, is the largest digital collection of newspaper advertisements for people escaping from North American slavery, and is led by a team of historians from Cornell, Ohio State University, University of Alabama, University of Kentucky, and the University of New Orleans. They worked in concert with programmers at the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER). Lead programmer Brandon Kowalski designed and built the innovative crowdsourced site with a broad set of users in mind. Now, in collaboration with The Hard History Project (HHP), FOTM has published the first components of a broader initiative that aims to dramatically increase use of the archive in K-12 classrooms.

The pilot collection includes lessons written by teachers for teachers, with explanatory videos and samples of student work. Aligned with Teaching Tolerance's Teaching Hard History instructional framework, these materials point the way toward a different approach for archives to meaningfully interact with teachers.

"For Americans, the history of slavery is some of the hardest history there is. But African American resistance to slavery has been a taproot for every freedom movement in the US, ever since. I am grateful for the Hard History Project's help in developing these materials, which make it easier for students to learn from the courage, solidarity, and stubborn survivalism of enslaved people who tried to free themselves. Above all, I am grateful to the teachers and students who have helped to shape the material we are presenting. The teachers are, in a word, brilliant, and I believe their students are going to teach us all about struggle and freedom in years yet to come," said Edward Baptist, Cornell professor of history in the College of Arts & Sciences and lead historian on the project.

The idea for this collaboration with the HHP developed soon after FOTM's site launched last year. The HHP works to bridge the collections that scholars, archives and libraries create with K-12 classrooms.

FOTM contains tens of thousands of ads, placed by enslavers and jailors in newspapers, seeking the return of those they claimed as property. Growing out of a well-developed framework for teaching challenging topics from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance initiative, The Hard History Project was the perfect partner for helping educators use these rich materials to teach students about enslaved people and the oppressive system they fought against daily, according to the FOTM team.

With funding from a Major Initiatives Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives, and outreach support from the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans, HHP and FOTM enlisted teachers from Atlanta public schools to develop strategies for using the database in K-12 classrooms.

Pilot participants Ahmariah Jackson, Heather Ingram, Will Duke and Cora Stark teach a variety of subjects and grade levels in the Atlanta area. They worked with HHP staff to create and test lessons incorporating the database into their classroom. They taught these lessons remotely, showing that even in online settings, difficult conversations can happen in classrooms in the time of COVID-19. Teachers and students alike left the experienced inspired, with new perspectives about slavery and the work of historians, according to the FOTM team.

"This resource reveals faces and stories - stories of resistance and escape," said Ingram. "It's ironic, because enslavers posted these ads to reclaim their property and benefit themselves, but what they left us was a vast resource of stories that otherwise would have remained untold. My students got that, and really came to life as they searched the database and analyzed the ads."

The collaboration is designed to point the way forward for archives and interpretive sites who want to engage with educators. "This project shows that teachers don't have to swim through a massive collection without guidance, or download a gigantic PDF, or modify one-size-fits-all lesson plans to use an archive like Freedom on the Move right away, and to dramatic results," said Kate Shuster, director of The Hard History Project. "These are lessons that any teacher can use right now with proven results to get their students interested in primary sources."

Teaching Tolerance provided support for the initial stages of this collaboration as part of its Teaching Hard History initiative, which Shuster also manages. This support was part of a general effort to broaden use of the Teaching Hard History K-12 instructional framework. As a result, these lessons are annotated to show alignment with that framework, leading teachers to even more strategies for teaching the national history of mass enslavement.

"We are so excited to present teachers with new resources for using Freedom on the Move in the classroom," said Mary Niall Mitchell, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, FOTM team member, and co-director of Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. "The collaboration with the Hard History Project team is vital to making these stories of resistance part of what students learn about American slavery. The creative lesson plans from participating teachers--and their students' deeply reflective responses to these assignments--show just how much capacity these sources have to engage young people. We already know that FOTM is an important resource for scholars and other researchers. Working with the Hard History Project, we can really see its potential to reach the next generation and change the narrative."

Links to the lesson plans and videos featuring the teachers talking about their work is available online. Grammy-nominated artist and MacArthur "Genius Grant" award-winner Rihanna Giddens generously contributed use of her music to the videos.

FOTM is offering a free webinar about these new resources on June 3 at 7:00 p.m. EST for any and all teachers. Panelists will include the teachers featured in the pilot, the HHP team, and historians from FOTM: Baptist, Mitchell, Hasan Jeffries, Vanessa Holden and Joshua Rothman. 


  outline of two slaves carrying bundles