Photo: Séan Alonzo Harris
Through his new Black Teacher Archives Project, Assistant Professor Jarvis Givens wants people to know that the story of Black education and Black teachers is complicated — and worth telling.
The idea started, as ideas often do, because something needed to change. When Assistant Professor Jarvis Givens was working on his dissertation in graduate school, and then later on his book about Carter G. Woodson and Black education, he realized it wasn’t always easy to track down the documents and historical materials he needed. Some had been lost, much was buried deep in the dusty archives of universities and libraries, neglected and out of sight.
Givens also realized, once he started digging, that some of the material he did find, especially in journals published by Black teachers’ associations after the Civil War and through the Jim Crow years, was showing a more complicated picture of Black education in American during those years than most people knew. Yes, the image of Black students attending dilapidated and underfunded schools was true, but as Givens writes in Fugitive Pedagogy, his book about Woodson that came out this year, Black teachers weren’t simply “helpless victims” carrying out orders from white leaders. They were also intellectuals, or “scholars of practice,” as Givens now calls them. They were “educators who lean into the intellectual demands of their work, modeling what it means to be thinkers and doers.” Under the watchful eye of the authorities, these teachers covertly revised the mandated curriculum to help their students, and taught in a “veiled world … only partially visible to the white public of their time and the historical record left behind.”
Around the time he was digging and discovering the rich material in these teacher association journals, Givens started talking about his work and the importance of the journals with his neighbor, Thersa Perry, Ed.D.’82, a recently retired professor from Simmons College and former dean of Wheelock College. Turns out, Perry had been having similar conversations with her daughter, Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton who had been using teachers’ journals extensively for the book she was writing, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem. Then, when Givens and the two Perrys were at an annual education research conference in 2018 in New York City, the elder Perry “summoned” them to a meeting, says Perry, and they started brainstorming how to capture the journals and other critical material in one place, not only for future researchers, but also to help reset the record on early Black educators.
“As someone who hunted down issues of the journals everywhere I could find them, it was clear to me that providing historians and critical pedagogues with these materials could transform both the history of education and Black studies,” says Perry.
From this, the Black Teacher Archives Project at Harvard was born.
Described as an online “archival initiative to preserve the political and intellectual contributions of Black educators before 1970,” the Black Teacher Archives Project officially launched in June 2020, two years after those brainstorming meetings, and is expected to be finished in the fall of 2022. With Givens and Perry as the principal investigators, the first phase of the project includes digitizing teachers’ journals from Colored Teachers Associations (CTAs), as they were called. These statewide professional associations formed in Southern states during Reconstruction, and in some Northern and Midwestern states during Jim Crow, and operated for more than 100 years, from 1861 through the late 1960s. The national organization was called the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. (It merged in 1964, during desegregation, with the National Education Association.)
Each state CTA published its own journal, usually monthly or quarterly, starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1960s. In total, there are about 650 volumes made up of 5,000 issues. Today, about 140 institutions around the country have some archived copies, including Harvard, which has a small number of journals from the state chapter in Virginia.
Content varies. In addition to meeting minutes and board member lists typically found in association publications, Givens says much of the content in these journals actually sheds light on the reality of the lives of Black educators, in and outside the classroom, during those decades.
“There are excerpts from speeches delivered at state and national teachers’ meetings,” including intellectuals like Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women, Givens says. “There is poetry written by Black teachers, stories about grassroots efforts to raise money to build schools, and coverage of partnerships between CTAs and other political organizations.” He also found essays highlighting important legal cases that had a direct impact on their lives as professional educators and as Black Americans.
“In these articles, we see Black teachers as more than just practitioners in the classroom,” he says. “We also see them thinking, strategizing, and developing ideas around the constraints of their practice.”
This contrasts sharply with how Black educators are often viewed, Givens says.
“In this country, K–12 teachers are often still seen as non-intellectuals, non-pedagogical knowers, especially Black teachers,” he says. “Then and now, teachers have had to turn to organizations like the CTA to create the spaces necessary to sustain the work they are trying to do.” As Perry told an audience during a recent Swarthmore College webinar about the Black Teacher Archives Project, “the bigotries that exist when it comes to Black teachers and students persist and are often telescoped into the past. I think the false assumptions of incompetence that are applied to Black teachers now are also present when it comes to the past. It’s remarkable how much disbelief one confronts when describing the highly trained, organized, and politically committed work of Black teachers in the Jim Crow era.”
At times, she said, Black teachers were even combative. “That’s part of why having the documents readily available” through the Black Teacher Archives, “is so important. This isn’t opinion,” she says. “This is historically documented.”
It’s partly this misconception of Black teachers that led Givens to rethink his focus when he was working on his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. He had first read Woodson’s 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, when he was an undergrad at Berkeley. Later, in graduate school, he learned that Woodson, a long-time teacher and child of former slaves (and creator of Black History Month, which was originally called Negro History Week), also published textbooks and wrote curriculum as a critique of the curriculum imposed on Black teachers for their students.
“I didn’t go to graduate school to study education, but learning about Woodson and these textbooks planted a few questions in my mind about the intellectual world of Black education that Woodson and these textbooks seemed to be emblematic of, and how that story challenged narrow frames of Black education prior to desegregation as separate, unequal — and nothing else,” Givens says. “It suggested that the story was more complicated, and that there was a lot of important work done in Black schools that dominant narratives about Black education during Jim Crow seemed to flatten and distort.”
And then he heard a story while researching Woodson that further challenged his thinking — and led him to coin the term “fugitive pedagogy,” a theory and practice that shows that in the pursuit of freedom, Black people consistently deployed fugitive tactics. Slaves learned to read in secret. Newly emancipated people during Jim Crow integrated all-white schools, and Black teachers developed covert instructional strategies while wearing a public mask of compliance.
The story he heard came from a videotape he watched one afternoon, while sitting in a small storage room in a church in Prince George’s County in Maryland. A member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization started by Woodson, had given him a bunch of tapes to watch from past events. In one of the videos, Givens heard Jerry Moore, a retired minister, talk about his discovery of Woodson as a teenage boy in Webster Parish, Louisiana, in the early 1930s. At the time, Louisiana was a textbook adoption state — a state that reviewed textbooks and other educational material and “approved” what could be used in class. Moore’s teacher, Tessie McGee, would couch a copy of Woodson’s book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, in her lap during class, despite clear instructions from the state’s all-white department of education stating that all teachers had to stick to using pre-approved curriculum openly displayed on their desk. As Moore said in the video, “When the principal would come in, she would … simply lift her eyes to the outline that resided on her desk and teach us from the outline. When the principal disappeared, her eyes went back to the book in her lap.”
As Givens writes in his book, Fugitive Pedagogy, “She kept the book out of sight, understanding the likely repercussions were she to be caught.” For teachers like McGee, “a critical aspect of their work had to be done covertly. If they were to fall or be caught, there was no safety net to catch them.” Just a few years earlier, for example, a black principal had been threatened and then fired from a school in Oklahoma “after a Klan-run white school board learned that Woodson’s textbook, The Negro in Our History, had — as they put it — ‘crept into our Negro schools.’”
But for McGee, and other Black teachers at that time, “at the heart of her pedagogy was an insistence that there was a different way of knowing the world,” Givens says. Learning about this remarkable but little-known fugitive work by early Black teachers was a turning point in his work, Givens said during a Harvard EdCast interview in February. Through his book, and now with the Black Teacher Archives, he says he wants to draw a narrative line from enslaved people secretly learning to read and write, “to some of the kind of concealed political work that Black teachers were doing even after Black education was technically legal in the South, in the United States, more broadly. ... Even as Black people could kind of learn out in the open in ways that they weren’t able to prior to the Civil War, there were still restraints and a lot of restrictions. They always had to tow this line in terms of how much they could really reveal about their political desires to be recognized as fully equal to white Americans, their former masters, et cetera.”
With teachers like McGee, Givens says that moment of power walking into the room and the Black teacher concealing what she actually wanted to teach — and knew was necessary for her Black students to learn — “signaled to me the kind of careful ways that Black teachers worked to negotiate power in the context of Jim Crow schools,” he said. “It just added a different layer of meaning to the importance of Woodson’s textbooks” and to the materials they are now highlighting through the Black Teacher Archives Project.
What’s next for this ambitous project? Just as the pandemic affected everything in education, it has had an impact on the project’s progress, Givens says, limiting the ability of the team, which includes project manager Micha Broadnax, to travel to archives for material. Still, they are moving forward, he says, including partnering with scholars at historically Black colleges and universities.
Once the project digitizes as many CTA journals as possible, they will also start adding additional material about Black educators.
“We are developing an interactive timeline chronicling important developments in the history of African American education,” Givens says. “The site will also include interpretive resources that will provide important context for the CTA journals, including reference lists, shorts essays on key themes, and links to other relevant sources. We will also include interviews with former members of CTAs, some that already exist in different places, but also interviews that we are conducting with leaders of these organizations that are still with us. Collectively, we hope the site will be easy to integrate into courses on the history of education, African American history, and curriculum for teacher training programs.”
Broadnax sees phase two as a space “where researchers will view the journals en mass and be able to search and review based on information such as the dates published, the physical repository that holds the copy of the journal, and keywords. We are also starting to scope out content to include to help researchers better understand the context of these Black educator organizations such as timelines, summaries, bibliographies, and guides.”
For Broadnax, getting this right is important for many reasons.
“My mother, born after Brown v. Board of Education, integrated her elementary school in Charlottesville, Virginia, and my brother is part of the 2% of public school teachers in American who are Black men,” she says. “The work of constructing this archive to make more visible and accessible the publications of Black educators is personal, political, and professional.”
Givens says he also wants the project to provide current teachers with examples of how they can engage in meaningful anti-racist fugitive work in their schools and communities — something he experienced with his teachers growing up in Compton, California. As he wrote in a piece for the Atlantic last spring, “The educators who taught me, like so many generations of African American teachers before them, operated from a pedagogical vision that was fundamentally anti-racist. They exposed students to expansive visions of Black life, through both their lessons and the relationships they formed with us as students.” This included his former high school history teacher, Tauheedah Baker-Jones, Ed.L.D.’21, now chief equity officer for Atlanta Public Schools.
“She wasn’t teaching during Jim Crow, but she was a Black woman teaching Black students and she was engaging us in writing our own textbook as a critique of the dominant textbooks,” Givens said in a 2019 Ed. story about Baker-Jones and Givens. “She’s one of the teachers in the back of my mind as I’m writing. I’ve seen and experienced the sense of urgency that some teachers bring to teach Black students. It’s no coincidence now that I’m studying these things.”
And it’s important, now more than ever, to get this story out into the world, he says.
“The Black Teacher Archives Project will help us tell more dynamic stories of Black educators, especially given all that becomes possible once historical sources are digitized. This is a world of teachers who cultivated dreams in generations of Black people, while living under persecution,” he says. “Their stories have so much to teach us.”