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Three Evanston Township High School teachers have joined a national initiative to document an important but obscure piece of 19th century African American history.
ETHS history teachers Michael Pond, Yosra Yehia and Kamasi Hill heeded a call by ETHS Department Chair for History and Social Sciences Nicole Parker to participate in the Colored Conventions Project with Kate Masur, a history professor at Northwestern University. The ETHS teachers saw a chance to elevate the forgotten history of racial justice organizing in the United States.
The project, Pond explained, is to build “lesson plans to accompany original research that Masur and her graduate students at Northwestern had done into Black life in Illinois and specifically for these Illinois Colored Conventions that took place throughout the 1850s.”
Colored Conventions are a crucial piece of American history as they were “a cornerstone of Black organizing in the 19th century,” according to the project’s website. It adds: The first convention in 1830 was “in response to Ohio’s 1829 exclusionary laws and a wave of anti-Black mob violence that had forced two thousand Black residents to flee the state. That first meeting brought Black leaders together to contest widespread discrimination against Black communities. Their gathering activated a movement.”
The national, regional and state conventions ran through the 1890s. Thirty states held conventions, more than 200 in all, in which free and free-born Black men and women met, organized and strategized about how to achieve and retain civil rights and racial justice.
Masur has been collaborating with Penn State University’s P. Gabrielle Foreman, the Paterno Family Professor of American Literature and Professor of African American Studies and History and founding director of the Colored Conventions Project, which began in 2012.
A decade ago, Foreman gave her graduate students an assignment to uncover and elevate the many original documents about the conventions. Foreman organized the work as a collective, founded on five ethical principles to guide research, writing and collaboration. The work has already netted a digital archive but much more needs to be done because so much of the conventions’ history are buried in personal diaries, letters and other ephemera.
Researchers are needed to search through microfiche files of long-forgotten newspaper stories and antiquated historical records. Volunteers are needed to transcribe the records when they are found.
“Some of the minutes of 19th-century Black conventions had already been compiled in books, and as an historian I was well aware of these,” said Masur, whose expertise as a scholar and educator is in American history prior to 1900. “But the CCP has turned up evidence of many, many more conventions, and they have made this history broadly accessible.”
Masur also was enticed by the project’s emphasis on teaching and collaboration, two of her interests. “I really wanted to invite high school teachers to create teaching materials to go along with our web exhibit on Black life and activism in antebellum Illinois,” she said.
“High school teachers are experts in their field; specifically they are experts in creating grade-level, adaptable content. I wanted the teaching materials associated with our exhibit to be created by people who know and work with high school students.
“I was also excited to develop an opportunity to collaborate with teachers at ETHS. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Kaplan Institute for Humanities at NU from which I could pay teachers a stipend for their work. This was how our collaboration came about,” Masur wrote.
Masur gave Pond, Yehia and Hill electronic access to all of the documents associated with three conventions known to have taken place in Illinois. Their task was to develop ways to engage high school students with skill-level-appropriate materials that would highlight the newly uncovered content. Pond described a collaborative process in which Masur suggested areas to emphasize, directions to consider and areas to fine-tune over a series of meetings with the ETHS teachers.
Pond proposed a lesson plan built around a scavenger hunt in which students have to find connections between the different personalities who attended a particular convention.
“I thought this was a great idea,” Masur said. “It was exactly the kind of thing I’d been hoping for from the teachers – that they would apply their expertise in designing practical materials for classroom use for our exhibit on Illinois.
“Teachers know their students and they know the kinds of questions and activities that help students learn. The scavenger hunt is designed to help students learn about the lives of individual people we profiled in the exhibit, and it does so while encouraging the students to ask questions and move around the classroom. The open-ended questions at the end of the lesson help students put the stories of people’s individual lives into a larger historical context.”
Pond’s scavenger hunt relies on profiles of convention delegates to help students learn about and understand what life was like for Black Illinoisans during the late 1800s.
One example of prominent figures were John and Mary Jones, both delegates to Illinois Colored Conventions.
“John Jones was the most prominent Black man in mid-19th-century Chicago, known for both his activism and his wealth,” Masur said. In 1865, he was instrumental in convincing Springfield legislators to repeal the discriminatory and restrictive “black Laws” in Illinois. His wife, Mary, was an active abolitionist and later got involved in women’s rights.
The couple often “sheltered fugitives from slavery in their home and hosted Frederick Douglass when he was in town,” writes Masur in her profile of Mary. After Mary Jones’ husband died in 1879, much of “Negro society” in Chicago revolved around her and her interests. She influenced scores of younger, politically active Black women, gave speeches and became active philanthropically.
For his part, Pond spent nearly all of spring break putting the finishing touches on his final lesson plans. He’s proud of the final product.
“We wanted it to be a useful tool, but we also wanted it to be flexible,” Pond said. “We know as teachers that flexibility is really important in the classroom, and that we have different time constraints, and now we’ve got different skills or content that either we are required to teach or we’re required to emphasize.”
Pond said some of what he found in the files caused him to think even deeper.
“It made me reflect on my teaching and some of the things that I need to make sure that I incorporate for my coursework. I think some of my other colleagues do a better job than I have at this, but it makes me realize that I need to incorporate, for example, more of the role of the AME Church,” Pond said.
“As I learned from this convention, it played a really really significant spiritual role, a leadership role in education and in activism, against these anti-Black laws in the 1850s,” he said. “I have some familiarity with the AME Church as a white male teacher, but I don’t have nearly as much knowledge as a lot of my other colleagues, those who might even be disciples of the church.”
Looking back on the work, Masur is pleased with the outcome, saying “I love that the initial partnership with CCP opened the door to collaborations among students, staff and faculty at Northwestern, among researchers across Illinois and beyond and with teachers at ETHS. I hope the web exhibit will continue to generate collaborative projects across all kinds of institutions.”
Pond was more philosophical.
“I have an obligation to ensure that when I teach history, I’m doing it as accurately as possible,” he said. “And then, perhaps most importantly, I’m making sure that I provide relevant connections between past and present so my students can always see themselves coming out of history to improve where we are today and their futures.”