Over the past academic year, history teacher Rhonan Mokriski and his students at the Salisbury School have been pursuing a project-based learning course in public history focused on uncovering the lives of free and enslaved African American families in northwestern Connecticut. This blog chronicles that journey.
By Caleb May ’21, a senior at salisbury School
I wrote in my last entry about how, prior to this class, my range of knowledge about Black Americans didn’t extend far beyond the historic household names like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. It was scary to realize that I had failed to learn about valuable members of our community.
As we learn more, we also realized why this was the case. Our class was able to see the subtle ways that valuable Black lives were ignored or slowly removed from our history. We committed to putting them back into the narrative to share this history with future generations.
For many years, schools have limited our knowledge of Black people to a handful of names. The effect is to whitewash what America knows. This class allows us to break free from that and focus on people who would typically would have gone unnoticed.
The Cesar family is a good example of this. They were a Black family that lived in our town for decades and helped contribute to the creation of our community. Their family was friends with “prominent” members of the town whose names are familiar, but up until this year, I had never heard mention of them. While the Bissels, the Hotchkisses, the Hollys have their names displayed everywhere, families like the Cesars do not. This leads to the belief that that Black people’s contributions did not matter as much as white people’s.
This is all the more tragic because the history of Black people is often taught through trauma. History is portrayed as something that happened “to” them. 2020 has shone a bright light on this. It demonstrates that this history is not confined to the past, but that it is also a problem in the present. Unless it is addressed, it will most likely be in the future as well.
After the murder of George Floyd, a lot was reexamined. Outrage from the public has helped Americans realize that a better education about the past will help bring about change. The Aunt Jemima brand was changed to Pearl Milling Company. Overseas in Australia, the popular Coon Cheese was changed to Cheer Cheese. It is truly unsettling to think that a defense for these awful names is that it celebrates history. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a painful reminder over the continued oppression of people based on skin color. Moreso: that racist stereotypes still exist at a global level and are deeply ingrained in pop culture.
However, like I said, there is promise. The reason that those names have been changed shows a change in the country’s attitude. It shows that it is possible for our country to deal with its extremely disturbing past. In a lot of ways, this country is built upon the backs of the enslaved. Americans have not traditionally recognized this but doing so is important because only by confronting this can we truly learn the true history of our country.
Our projects are our attempt to combat this. We are digging up buried history. We are grabbing shovels and digging for every bit of information that we can find. It has been an amazing journey. For example, we have been able to have several meaningful discussions with Cesar descendant Katherine Overton, and we are making a documentary that will highlight how she has stopped the erasing of Black and brown in order to find her family’s roots. Even though conventional history does not deem it so, her family does matter. It is our obligation as Americans to continue this same journey by trying to find the local Black history that has been buried or erased. It is there!