Revisiting Local History to Understand Why Black Lives Matter

Co-written by: Linda Christensen, Peaches Eltagonde, Daren Zook, Dianne Leahy, Ellie McIvor-Baker, and Nyki Tews

At this moment of historic rebellion, the need to revisit the past seems more urgent than ever. Our students have witnessed the removal of statues, flags and other symbols of our country’s racist legacy, but there’s more to uncover. In order to help young people understand the summer’s uprising and the necessity for systemic changes, teachers must also create curricula that provides students with the twin legacy of resistance. The work of teachers at Harriet Tubman Middle School and Jefferson High School provides potential models for educators across the country.

While the teachers at Tubman and Jefferson didn’t foresee the events that unfurled after George Floyd’s death, their lessons during the school year underscored the importance of standing for justice by engaging 6th-9th graders in the study of local histories that connected them to their schools’ and cities’ Black activists. When Black Lives Matter signs covered downtown store windows, festooned lawns of Portland homes, rode on protest signs nightly, sprung up on fences and overpasses throughout the city, students could cast back to the school year and remember the Black activists who fought for Harriet Tubman Middle School so that Black students could be educated in their home communities instead of being bused throughout the city. When Portland community members tore down the statue of Thomas Jefferson at Jefferson High School and spoke about police brutality and the gentrification of the Albina neighborhood where Jefferson sits, students had background knowledge to help them understand both the words and the actions.

Tubman and Jefferson teachers created their curriculum as part of the “Revisiting History through Literature, Landscapes and Local Legends” 2019-2020 LRNG Innovator’s Challenge grant project through the National Writing Project. The work started with a summer “curriculum camp” for Art and English/Language Arts teachers from Tubman Middle School and Jefferson High School’s 9th grade academy. The week-long intensive professional development gave teachers across the grades and schools time to meet each other and build curricula about the legacies of both schools and their shared neighborhood. Teachers envisioned their lessons culminating in a joint community celebration, showcasing student performances, including artwork and writing. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic ended school before students completed final projects, and celebrations, even masked and social distanced ones, never came to fruition.

The Tubman Legends

Tubman teachers faced the challenge of uniting a splintered community. The previous year, district administration closed four middle schools in a rapidly gentrifying section of Portland’s historic Black neighborhood and poured them into a previously shuttered building: Tubman Middle School. The result was a fractured student body and teaching staff who lacked connection to their school. The newly reopened Harriet Tubman Middle School had been the site of a historic struggle by the Black community; the teachers used that legacy to build a curriculum to unite the students and staff through a study of the school’s origin story.

During the opening staff professional development to kick off the 2019/20 School year, the Tubman teachers–Sarah Dyste, Peaches Eltagonde, Jacy Morris, Rochelle Plymers, and Darren Zook led the staff through a curated version of the unit they developed so that they also knew the history that led to the creation of Tubman and where the school had the potential to go. They asked the staff, and later the students, these key questions:

  • What does Harriet Tubman represent to this community?
  • Why Tubman was opened in the first place?
  • Why is the reopening of Tubman so important?
  • How do you contribute to the rich history of Tubman by being here?
  • Why is it important that you are at Tubman right now?

During the opening of the year, students and staff chose the name “Legends” as the school mascot. Sixth grade language arts teacher, Peaches Eltagonde, remembers, “The school was in the midst of choosing a mascot for our school to help foster pride and community.  As we sat in the Jefferson High School library creating curriculum, we began throwing out some ideas for students to vote on in the fall.  We wanted to illuminate Harriet Tubman as a hero and since were working on the ‘Legends’ grant at that moment, we made a connection! Harriet Tubman was a legend, the activists, community leaders and advocates students would interview and research during the year were also legends. We sent our suggestion off.  Ultimately in the initial vote, the two options that were tied ended up being Legends and Conductors.  And in the final vote Legends was chosen as the HTMS mascot.”

Tubman teachers involved in the grant explored and taught the history of the school’s birth during the 1970’s, and the parallel study of the school district’s desegregation plan, which placed the burden of desegregation on the Black community. When the district built middle schools, they did not build one in the Albina neighborhood, thus engineering the busing of most Black students across the Portland area. For some this was a few miles on a bus; for others the ride was almost twelve miles. They were forced to rise earlier and come home later than any white students.

As part of the unit, Tubman language arts students studied busing maps, which depicted students’ home school, like Vernon, then the rays spreading south and east across the city to white schools. Each ray ends with a number. Of the 221 6th-8th grade students at Vernon, located in the Black community, one child ended up at Hayhurst, two at Maplewood, one at Multnomah, twenty at Lent and so on. Students examined the maps: noticing the number of miles traveled, the number of students bused to each school. They asked questions about the maps, then they imagined a day in the life of one of those children after reading Renée Watson’s essay, “Black Like Me” where she describes the bus ride to school and later in the essay, the way she is singled out by teachers in harmful ways. Dr. Dyan Watson, Renée Watson’s sister, wrote in her Rethinking Schools article, “Letter from a Black Mom to Her Son,” about the effects of being one of a handful of Black children in a white school:

For three years of my K-8 schooling, from 7:40 a.m. until 3:05 p.m., I was Black and invisible. I was bused across town to integrate a white school in Southeast Portland, Ore. We arrived at school promptly at 7:30 and had 10 full minutes before the white children arrived. We spent that time roaming the halls—happy, free, normal. Once the white children arrived, we became Black and invisible. We were separated, so that no more than two of us were in a class at a time. I never saw Black people in our textbooks unless they were in shackles or standing with Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us rarely interacted with a Black adult outside of the aide who rode the bus with us. I liked school and I loved learning. But I never quite felt right or good. I felt very Black and obvious because I knew that my experience was different from that of my peers. But I also felt invisible because this was never acknowledged in any meaningful way. I became visible again at 3:05 when I got back on the bus with the other brown faces to make our journey home.

After reading the personal essays, Tubman students created fictional historical biographies to build empathy for what the Black youth endured. Teachers prompted the activity with questions:

  • How did you feel when you were waiting at the bus stop?
  • How did you feel when you were on the bus?
  • How did you feel when you arrived at school?
  • How do you imagine the students and teachers there would have treated you?
  • What do you think the student population looked like?
  • What did a typical day look like at your new school?
  • Do you think that the district made a good choice to bus students out?
  • What do you think PPS could have done differently?

After writing their biographies, students engaged in a role play based on specific struggles with Portland’s desegregation plan in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, highlighted by the Black United Front (BUF), a branch organization of a national group which pressed for Civil Rights around school desegregation, police brutality as well as the fight against apartheid in South Africa.  These problems included: failing neighborhood schools, forced busing of Black children, the dearth of Black teachers and administrators, the absence of a neighborhood school in the Albina community, the omission of Black History in the curriculum, and the unfair discipline practices towards Black youth. Working in small groups, students engaged with the issues identified by the BUF, then developed potential solutions and demands. They shared demands in the format of a school board meeting role play. While students shared solutions, other students took notes on possible solutions or demands.

To debrief the role play, students examined a photo from the actual school board meeting, where Ron Herndon, from the BUF stood on the school board’s desk, halting the meeting when the BUF’s demands for action once again stalled. Students also read the demands of the BUF and compared them to the solutions and demands they created.

Each grade level Language Arts teacher taught the unit and explored the themes of desegregation in the local community, then the art teacher, the media teacher, and each grade level worked through created a set of projects that exemplify a deep respect for the leaders in the community and a lens with which to see the future of a newly formed middle school community.

The unit culminated in a meeting with the Black activists from the BUF and students from the first graduating classes of Tubman Middle School. Students rehearsed interview questions and notetaking prior to the interviews, weaving literacy skills into the building of historical knowledge throughout the unit. Unfortunately, not all interviews were conducted before the pandemic stole the school year. Students wrote poems about the school and the activists. Some pieces of the work were completed and shared in video formats. Students ended by writing collective class persona poems from the school’s point of view:

Write that I am Harriet Tubman Middle School

I open my doors to people who are locked out.

Built because Black children

are not pawns to be controlled.

I hold a community that is growing big and strong

like a tree.

A family tree,

whose fruits will bloom into legends.

Tell them that I am a school where diversity thrives in our roots.

Say that I am filled with teachers

that eloquently dance amongst a sea of eager raised hands.

Write that my hallways are flooded with waves of students

ready to learn.

My children are like sponges

soaking up every

bit of knowledge

poured out by the teachers.

Here, I make sure everyone feels like they belong

and do not feel like an orange fish

in a school of blue fish swimming

the opposite direction.

Tell them legends last forever.

Jefferson Legends

Jefferson High School has been a pillar of Portland’s Albina community for over 100 years. As the only neighborhood school with a majority of African American students in the entire state of Oregon, Jefferson has been the target of countless racist policies and practices. The school has fought against segregation, attempted closures, multiple restructurings, and rampant gentrification. Oftentimes the story that is told of Jefferson is a story of struggle. While it is true that Jefferson has a rich history of activism, it is also a place of creative expression, academic excellence, and connected community.

Jefferson High School currently sits in the middle of one of the fastest gentrifying zip codes in the United States. Over the past few years, the graduation rates have risen to some of the highest in the state and enrollment has been steadily increasing. The media has lauded new initiatives at the school for some of these changes, while often ignoring the years of community work that has upheld and created Jefferson.

A couple of years ago, freshman language arts teachers noticed that their classes began to feel deeply divided between students that had a long familial history at Jefferson and students who had decided to attend Jefferson from outside the neighborhood in order to take advantage of a program that the school has with the local community college. Students were disconnected from each other, and many students were disconnected from the community that has fought for and uplifted Jefferson over decades.

The 9th grade ELA teachers wanted to create a unit that connected students with the rich history of their school and the community. They wanted 9th grade students to understand that from the moment they enter through doors at Jefferson, they become part of a legacy of artists, activists, athletes, doctors, lawyers, and so much more. They also wanted to use this unit as an opportunity to bring the community back into Jefferson, to let them know that their contributions are acknowledged and celebrated within the school.

These goals led to two major units of study for students: First, a neighborhood history from redlining to gentrification which outlined the systemic racism that led to the contemporary pushing out of Black families. Second, a Legends Day, where graduates from Jefferson who have gone on to become “legends” in their field returned to speak about their time at the school and their road to success in education, hair cutting, sports, medicine, the arts and more.

Building Background Knowledge about Black History: Walking Tour

Armed with key information about community activists over the past 70 years and practices such as redlining and eminent domain, students were prepared when took a walking tour of the historic Albina Neighborhood led by Jefferson Legend and community activist, Lakeitha Elliot. Not only did students learn more of the rich history of the neighborhood, including where Black owned businesses thrived, they also learned of the current artistic and organized efforts to honor and lead into the future.

Every act in the process of dismantling the Jefferson community—from segregation to urban renewal to the current gentrification—appeared inevitable. Yet, when examined closely, these acts rest on a platform of racism, privilege, and decisions made by people in power. As Avel Gordly, community activist and former Oregon state senator, stated, “Gentrification is a process, and not just an event. It is intentional, and it’s planned with specific policies, programs, and development decisions used to accomplish the objective of moving one people out and another people in. Specifically in Portland, it’s resulted in the forced removal of African Americans to the outskirts of the city while middle- and upper-income whites moved in.”

As the students stood at the empty field at the end of the tour, where Black owned homes had been razed for a hospital expansion that never happened, Ms Elliot asked them to dream with her, “What do you dream this field could be? How could this field serve our community?”  Students learned that Ms. Elliot and other Black community members have pressed for the “Right to Return” program that allows Black families to return to their neighborhood as homeowners through a variety of initiatives and grants. The field of dreams, where students ended the field trip, is part of a multi-million-dollar effort to assist the historic Albina community survive the intense gentrification of North Portland. (See North Williams Avenue: Past and Present – A walking tour guided by Lakeitha Elliott; For a full description of the unit see Christensen, L. (2015). ” EJ” in Focus: Rethinking Research: Reading and Writing about the Roots of GentrificationThe English Journal105(2), 15-21. )

Building Background: Yearbook Dive

Yearbook collections, as well as other historic documents, date back to Jefferson’s beginnings over a century ago.  After an orientation to all of the recorded history, students gathered around library tables where the librarian had organized yearbooks by decades.  With a note sheet in hand, students combed through the yearbooks to get a sense of what programs, student life, styles, etc., were at Jefferson.  Many students loved finding their parents, grandparents, cousins, aunties, pastors, in the pages. With the note sheets, students were to find background information for historical fiction writing, thinking about events, styles, people, places, etc.

Building Background: Tea Party

Jefferson teachers called on former teachers and students to nominate “legends” for current students to interview. Then the team wrote tea party or mixer roles about each of these graduates. They attempted to find graduates from multiple decades who demonstrated expertise in a variety of fields: sports, movies, dance, community activists, doctors, and judges.

On the day of the mixer, each student was given a profile of a Demo Legends who would be attending the Legend Day.  During this activity, students represented the legend in a “tea party”— acting as if they were the person based on the biographies.  The goal of the mixer was for students to locate at least three alumni they wanted to interview on Legend Day. Each biography included information about their time at Jefferson as well as their current work:

Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia: Executive Director of OHSU Avel Gordly Center for Healing. I grew up in the Jeff neighborhood. I was student body president and Rose Festival Queen during my senior year. I went to Stanford University, then George Washington University. I finished my final four years of training in psychiatry and a fellowship in addiction studies at Oregon Health and Science University. I am currently the executive director of the OHSU Avel Gordly Center for Healing and assistant professor of psychiatry, OHSU School of Medicine. I am also the Co-Founder of The Capuia Foundation (whose mission is to build a sustainable economy through healthcare, education and agriculture in Angola, Africa). My family and I built a primary care clinic in Angola. www.thecapuiafoundation.org.

While “meeting” each other, students filled out the note-taking sheet, asking them to find someone who had helped their community, who followed their dreams, who found their passion at Jefferson, who works for justice, who followed a creative career.

The full tea party and note-taking sheet is available here.

Legend Day

On March 5th, student greeters stood outside of Jefferson High School, welcoming the legends home, then ushering the Jefferson alumni into the community room for refreshments provided by the PTSA. Students escorted the guests to the auditorium for a keynote speech by the award-winning novelist, Renée Watson, who graduated from Jefferson in 1996. She spoke about how her time at Jefferson shaped her writing career.

Then students dispersed for three rounds of interviews with Jefferson legends. Some of the interviews took place online in the library, the rest took place in the cafeteria and small gym. Some of the interviews were conducted in Spanish or with interpretation for newcomer students.

More detailed information on the organizing of the event, the letters to the legends, and the set up of the day, is available here.

Student Projects

Jefferson teachers envisioned multiple ways for students to honor and commemorate the alumni—through poetry, historical fiction, comic books, plays. And a grand finale event held with the Tubman Legends, a field day for people who have committed themselves to making the world more just, a celebration of student work: stages for poetry slams and music commemorating the alumni, a table to sell the books they created,  Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, school ended one week after the event. Trying to resuscitate the enthusiasm and interest during online schooling proved difficult for students and teachers.

More information about the student projects and some of the student work is available here.

Conclusion

In our classrooms, we need to teach students to read and write, but we also need to study our cities and our neighborhoods, especially when they are experiencing upheaval. When we fail to examine systematic racism that uproots their families, we fail to prepare them to understand why Black Lives Matter—from police brutality to job discrimination to housing insecurity. We need to build frameworks that outline patterns white supremacy, so students can recognize them and work to stop them.