Last summer, FFT Fellow Brian Forte crossed seven states and the District of Columbia to experience significant cultural and civic landmarks and analyze how “stories of the south” are essential to the larger American narrative. He’s now re-framing approaches to civics and history curricula at Rockville High School in Vernon, CT. We’re grateful for his work and for sharing the impact of his fellowship, both personally and professionally.
As we begin our celebration of Black History Month, I realize how much I struggle that we’ve relegated a tragic history, an incredible, pivotal movement, and the accomplishments of a vital group of Americans to one month of twelve. I’m reminded of my journey south this year, as I embarked on my FFT fellowship in an attempt to learn the ways in which the past – both slavery and civil rights – informs and continues on in the present, albeit in different ways. Our efforts to sanitize the past, to say “that’s over, it’s all ancient history,” miss the fact that we must bear witness to those who lived and worked to change so much for so many. And, we must also acknowledge the ways that despite declarations otherwise, some of the places we use as icons and memorials for a civil rights movement that some believe is no longer needed are also hotbeds for white supremacy and terrorist attacks that target people of color.
I journeyed through the south experiencing and witnessing atrocities of our country’s history. There was the beautiful plantation house outside Charleston and its extensive gardens that were home to alligator and peacock alike. On lesser display were the slave quarters, tucked behind a grove of trees and not on the “beaten path” of most visitors’ tours of the grounds. As I considered the visitors around me, I remembered reading an article in the New York Times that discusses the ways some plantations are putting the slave experience at the forefront: after all, how do we tour these palatial estates without awareness of those responsible for building and maintaining them, for generating (and unfortunately representing) their immense wealth? So, while I could marvel at the beauty of the natural grounds, the most powerful part of the visit was visiting the slave quarters, taking in the stark difference between the columns and majesty of the main house with the dilapidated and basic structures that housed the slaves.
The most haunting visual, for me, is the collection of tombstone-like structures that form the installation at Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. Colloquially called “The Lynching Museum,” it is a testament for those lost throughout American history to lynch mobs. Walking through the installation that comprises the main part of the memorial, it’s hard to avoid the sheer number of “tombstones” hanging from the ceiling. You are in the middle of them, they surround you. It’s impossible not to come face-to-face with names of lynched individuals from 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, from all over the south.
As I returned to school this year, I tried to consider ways to impart my learning to my students, particularly my civics classes. In front of me sit students from all backgrounds, those who may be aware of race in a passing way alongside those who experience race in this country in a very direct way, every day. The way I chose to implement what I had learned this summer was to have students create their own “Story of the South” using the landmarks and sites that I visited this summer. Students are required to research and analyze the historical and cultural implications as they relate to the history of our country, interpret the photos associated with each site, and then create their own “Story.” Students have options to create Gallery Walks, Podcasts, Visual Timelines, or I let them choose a project that they feel comfortable with creating. By creating these stories it is my hope that students will build a better understanding of the major events that impact their lives. The culmination of the assignment is when I share my grant proposal with them to see if our interpretation of the events and stories align.
Brian Forte has taught at Rockville High School in Vernon, CT, for 15 years. Part of his teaching philosophy is making students aware of the world and that traveling is the antidote to ignorance. He has taken students to Italy and was nominated by peers for a district-wide “Profiles in Professionalism” award for School Spirit. Brian’s hobbies include playing sports, playing music, traveling, playing with my little girl, and constantly learning.