How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South

This year, Erin Williams, a student from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, investigated and performed the life of Susan Casement Maer, a native of Australia who, in 1881, became one of Mississippi’s first women newspaper owners— the “editress” of the Columbus Dispatch, as records of that time identify her. Kaelon McNeece, a student from Brandon, a suburb of Jackson, researched J. G. Parsons, a Confederate soldier, which led to an exploration of undiagnosed PTSD following the war. Dairian Bowles—a student from Byhalia, a rural town in northern Mississippi, who performed the story of state Senator Gleed—also investigated the life of a progressive doctor, John H. Hand. He ended many cruel, ineffective medical practices in 19th-century Columbus—and then purchased nine enslaved women and men, as his practice earned him a sizable fortune.The Tales From the Crypt project, which added research and community performances to the U.S. history curriculum, was started by Yarborough’s late colleague and mentor, Carl Butler, in 1990. In 2007, Yarborough founded the African American history course, for which students also research those buried in Sandfield and perform their stories as part of the Eighth of May Celebration of Emancipation—a yearly tribute that had fizzled out in Columbus in the 1970s and was later revived by Yarborough’s course.As part of the African American history class this year, Edith Marie Green, a student from Oxford, a suburb in northern Mississippi, investigated the life of Allen L. Rabb, owner of Rabb’s Meat Market, started by Allen’s father in the post–Civil War years. Other students researched historic records for William Isaac Mitchell, the president of Penny Savings Bank, the first African American–owned bank in Columbus, and Richard Littlejohn, the publisher of a local black newspaper in the 1880s, among others.Green told me that this class was the first time she’d learned anything about Reconstruction, and she certainly hadn’t learned about black life during that period. “In my history classes, we covered slavery and Martin Luther King. That’s it,” she said.Green, who is white, said she especially appreciated hearing the perspectives of her black classmates during frequent discussions that made connections between Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and contemporary issues of racism. “Black students encouraged white students to go beyond outrage over great injustices to think about what we can do to change things now,” she said. Helping more Americans recognize black history as part of U.S. history is a priority for Green. She plans to become a high-school history teacher someday, she told me.Bowles described his performances of state Senator Gleed—along with the process of researching Dr. Hand’s life—as the highlights of his high-school experience. Spending time in the archives, Bowles told me, made him feel like a private investigator, caught up in the excitement of one court record he’d uncover leading to another, as small puzzle pieces of his research subject’s life fell into place. The contradiction Bowles uncovered—an innovative, progressive doctor who made medicine more humane, and a person who failed to see the inhumanity and cruelty of slavery—became the central question Bowles explored during his performance to a crowd of about 1,000 mostly white Columbus residents at Friendship Cemetery. “It was important for me to understand how common his views were and where his mindset came from,” Bowles reflected. “Developing an understanding doesn’t mean justifying or excusing someone’s actions.”

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