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If You Don’t Know Your History You Cannot Teach It

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By Hardy Brown

President George W. Bush said in a recent speech on the constitution of the United States that 28% of American 8th graders did not know the reason why the Civil War was fought.

He was speaking to the lack of accuracy being taught in our history classes and schools. With this lack of knowledge it is not difficult to understand why people do not understand racial issues or what our rights really are in a free country.

With this new information from our president, I’m very proud of what Cheryl Brown, co-publisher of the Black Voice News, is doing with her work on the Underground Railroad field study and curriculum development. For the past five years she has led eager and excited educators on trips re-tracing the steps of the Underground Railroad from Kentucky to Canada in order to increase their knowledge and appreciation of the real history of pre-Civil War America. Just like Harriet Tubman, she puts the word out in the community that a pick-up will take place sometime in August, the hottest month of the year, and just like our ancestors, people whisper of their desire to be ready for this once in a lifetime opportunity to get on board a freedom train (or bus as is the case on the trip) to Canada.

One of the many things educators on the trip often discover for the first time is that abolitionists; White, Black and Native Indians were all along the routes helping freedom seekers gain their freedom prior to the Civil War. They learn first hand what it might have been like to sleep in a handmade water well. They learn first hand what it might have been like to sleep in holes dug out in the basements of houses. They learn first hand what it might have been like to be chased by slave-hunting dogs. They learn first hand what it might have felt like to be locked up in a slave holding pen in Kentucky. They learn first hand what it might have felt like trying to cross the heavy currents of the Ohio River. They learn first hand why Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. They learn first hand why Paul Lawrence Dunbar did the things he did as a Negro writer, as well as about who his famous friends were. They learn about slavery first hand by viewing authentic documents at Oberlin University. They learn first hand about the powerful role of many brave citizens when they visit historic cemeteries. They learn first hand about the real Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson and his true legacy from his descendents in Canada (Stowe’s Uncle Tom character based on him). They learn first hand that run away slaves had a school so great that Whites were eager to enroll their own children in it. The teachers who take this journey then return anxious to teach what they have learned “first hand.” Each year the number of those wanting to take the trip increases along with their enthusiasm.

For those wondering how the trip is made possible, it’s through the sponsorship of many school districts in our counties: The partnership of the San Bernardino County Schools, San Bernardino City Unified School District, Riverside County Schools, Fontana Unified School District, Rialto Unified School District, Moreno Valley Unified School District, Lake Elsinore School District, Jurupa Unified School District, Hesperia School District, Cal State University, San Bernardino and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Like President Bush undoubtedly felt, it is sad that we do not know or understand our history, but it makes me proud to know that the educational community in the Inland Empire has and continues to do something about changing that reality. It is wonderful to know that the educational leaders of our district think outside the box, and say we do not want our students to repeat history because of lack of knowledge of it. My hat is off to the many who make such freedom trips possible “first hand.”

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