Teaching Slavery after the Baltimore Uprising

James F. Dator

The week that Freddie Gray died still weighs on heavily on my memory. As a historian, it was impossible to hear the helicopters overhead and see video of children confronting police with rocks and not feel that history was repeating itself. As a teacher at Goucher College, a small liberal arts college with a Baltimore zip code, keeping calm in the classroom while facilitating discussions about race and police brutality felt impossible. But as a human being, watching the grainy cellphone video of members of the BPD throwing Gray in the back of the van boiled my soul. Even today, the image of the slim, shrieking Gray—his neck contorted, his legs limp as he cried for help—raises my conscious to a state of fury.

Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston, “Ride Away,” April 27, 2015, VIRIN: 160421-D-HG842-048.JPG.; Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Yet somehow I’ve made my way researching and teaching about slavery in the Atlantic world, rich with violence, with more tempered emotions. Perhaps this is because somewhere deep in my psyche my subconscious lies and says I have no real connection to the history of slavery; unlike many of my students, growing up white, I never heard stories of enslaved members in my family tree. Maybe, too, the distance of time itself acts as some kind sedative to the violence. Or maybe I’ve just learned to keep a slow simmer in check. I still recall when an advisor revealed to me how he found himself constantly questioning whether he could complete his project as he read line after line detailing scenes of brutal torture of rebels during the Haitian Revolution. In the end, he imparted on me that turning away was just not an option.

I raise these competing sentiments here because the “objectivity question” has become one of the central pedagogical issues historians of slavery face in the age of the Black Lives Matter. Teaching at a school that prizes small classes means that my students know me by my first name but call me by last (sans academic title). We get students from all over the country as well as the east and west sides of Baltimore city.  Students of color often outnumber white students in my 200- and 300-level courses. My courses focused on first-year students, however, tend to hover just over 20 percent students of color. In other words, students who tend to lack the skills for discussing race and power (first-years) often enter into an unequal environment—precisely where confidence with these skills seems most necessary.

I believe part of my job is to develop that confidence, but nearly all my students arrive with at best a vague notion of slavery. They know confidently it has something to do with race, and they know it has something to do with freedom. Most of all they know it has something to do with racial violence. Since Black Lives Matter hits directly on these themes, students have found power to speak out about them with a passion of profound import. Still, at the same time I also have students—many white, some black and brown—who come to my courses in “a half-hesitant sort of way.” And across the board, most have little historical literacy, too.[i]

“Frederick Douglas circa 1866,” from the New York Historical Society.; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Teaching about slavery in the Atlantic world thus requires an honesty in the classroom about how we all enter the history we are studying. I don’t mean in a confessional sense. Rather, I find that my pedagogy is best when I return to two big themes: Who gets to write history? and Who did what to whom and why? 

Inevitably, students begin to ask me about my role as the teacher. They’ve read my face and given me a story, and they want to know if their story matches mine. They see my privilege and call it out. The hesitant students’ ears perk up; they’ve been thinking it, too, and how it might relate to their place in the classroom. We talk about it honestly, and we return eventually to the question of authorship: Who gets to write history? Is history a form of property? Should it be? In turn, reading and understanding the text often become more crucial. We try our best to hold each other accountable to it. I make sure they know the difference between an argument and an opinion, that citation and precision with evidence matters, and that the quietest student in the class can often be the one with the most provocative insights.

Though difficult at times, I’ve found that these conversations always change the classroom dynamic in a positive way. Students begin to work through their own agency as historical thinkers and intellectuals and not simply passive recipients of the facts of the past. The power of historical thinking—about process and change over time—becomes more tangible to them, and no longer is history simply about memorizing names and dates (as it often was for them in high school). Students begin to think more deeply about what they’ve inherited from the past, but also begin to realize that the line between then and now is not as arrow-straight as they once thought.

One of the most powerful experiences teaching about slavery came just recently, when I brought my first-year class to the Maryland Historical Society in downtown Baltimore. Although some of my students were from the city, none had ever visited the archives nor walked around the surrounding neighborhood. Thankfully our Velveeta-yellow bus arrived early, and I had the chance to walk them a few blocks away to the swanky block of Mount Vernon Place.

Roger B. Taney statue in Mount Vernon Place from Baltimore, Maryland

“Roger B. Taney statue, Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD,” Sculptor by William Henry Rinehart, July 2008.; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The center of the neighborhood is marked by the original Washington Monument, which towers over neighboring greenspaces speckled with nineteenth-century sculptures. One of these statues is an 1887 sculpture of Roger Taney, who sits in his courtly robe with a bound copy of the Constitution standing under his left palm. As we huddled around the statue that cool, breezy morning, I asked my students if anyone knew who he was. No one knew, so I explained his place on the Supreme Court, his family ties to plantation slavery in Maryland, and his famous decision that went out of its way to argue that people of “the African race” were not citizens of the United States. We also talked about why it might have been put there in 1887 and briefly about the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. The materiality of the sculpture in the heart of this pricey neighborhood made the historical trajectory of white supremacy in Baltimore more present than anything I could have done in the classroom. The moment was electric. “Damn, Dator, can we take it down?” one of the students yelled out. We talked about this debate, and I suggested that instead the city should place a taller figure of a steely-eyed Frederick Douglas standing over Taney, starring down at him with the planter’s son in his shadow. “But I’m not sure,” I said.

As we walked back, I wondered if the city would ever have the courage of my students to honestly confront its past. But when the doors of the archive opened, they were certainly eager and ready. I can’t forget that moment, either.


[i] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK, 1988); “half-hesitant sort of way,” W. E. B. Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People,” Atlantic Monthly (Aug. 1897).

17 July 2017

About the Author

James F. Dator is Assistant Professor of History at Goucher College.

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