the value of deliberating historical narrative

In our high school class, we spent almost two hours editing the text

that accompanies the first seven pictures in this slideshow

on the history of school desegregation in Prince George’s County.

We had planned to cover much more ground, but I believe the editing exercise

was extremely useful.

First, I don’t think the students usually edit what they write, so

this was a valuable experience for them.

Second, there are profound political differences implied by small changes

in the way you describe events. It sounds very different to say, "African

American students were required to ride buses to predominantly White

schools," or "The NAACP forced the County to bus students

to promote integration." Both are true; but the political implications

are hugely different. Trying to write narrative text is a wonderful

way to learn skills of historical interpretation.

Third, I kept pressing the class to make sure we had evidence for our

claims. They wanted to say, for example, that busing led to White protests

in Prince George’s County. This turned out to be true, but at first

nobody could remember any evidence to support the claim. I tried to

persuade the class that we have an obligation to prove to ourselves

that our assertions about specific places and times are right.

The text that is currently on the Website does not yet reflect the students’

latest edits. They were eager not to focus too much on their own high

school (which used to exclude Blacks as a matter of law). Our students

themselves would all be excluded today, but they still don’t like the

negative focus on their school. They also want to avoid a simple Black/White

narrative, since the communities they know are more ethnically and racially

diverse. But it’s hard to figure out what to say about other races in

the 1950s. It appears from old yearbooks that some people who would today

be called Latinos attended all-"White" schools. We have no data

on Hispanics/Latinos, since the Census did not use that category until

the 1970s. As for Asians, there were only 283 in the County in 1950, according

to the Census, so we don’t know what happened to their kids.

I also had an interesting conference call with NACE

members and participated in an "audio press conference" sponsored

by Carnegie Corporation of New York.