Gilder Lehrman Summer Series: North American Slavery in Comparative Perspective


Mr. Singer teaches social studies at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington DC.

Each summer the Gilder Lehrman Institute holds seminars for public, parochial and independent school teachers "designed to strengthen educators' commitment to high quality history teaching." More than 6,000 teachers have participated in the program through the years. In the summer of 2006 600 participants from 49 states and 6 foreign countries took part. HNN asked participants to write up their reflections, which we will be publishing over the coming months.

Twenty-one colleagues and I met on a Sunday afternoon in mid July at the University of Maryland to spend a week together discussing the history of slavery in the United States and throughout the Americas. We were mostly history teachers, though a few librarians and one National Park Service employee joined us; we were selected to attend a seminar taught by Professor Ira Berlin. We’d been sent numerous books to read ahead of time, including one by the instructor himself. Two graduate students and a coordinator from the Gilder Lehrman Institute rounded out the group.

The assigned readings covered the history and spread of slavery, a comparison of slavery in Brazil and the United States, a more detailed history of slavery in the United States, one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, and a collection of essays that focused on  how slavery is discussed, or not, in the larger world today. And there were a few photocopied journal articles to read as well. In short, once everyone had finished the readings, we were primed with a multitude of facts, figures, antidotes and insights about this surprisingly complex and nuanced topic.

After checking into our dorm rooms – an experience many of us had not had in years – we boarded a bus to the professor’s home in Washington, DC for dinner and drinks. We visited with each other for a few hours, learning each other’s names, schools taught at, subjects taught, etc. It was a fun, casual introduction to each other and the professor and his wife. We then headed back to Maryland, and the real work – learning, really – began the next morning.

We spent most days seated in a conference room facing each other and the professor.  Dr. Berlin lead a group discussion of the readings we had done, asking questions, making connections and drawing conclusions from the books and topics on our syllabus. Also, to my pleasant surprise, the professor finished the topics he’d selected for each session and he took breaks promptly when they were indicated on the schedule. And for myself and others, one of the highlights of the week was when Dr. Berlin would launch into a review of slavery during a particular period in time, talking extemporaneously and in great detail. Clearly, we were listening to a master at work. This was intellectualism at its best. A warm, open, knowledgeable professor sharing all he knows about a topic with a group of eager, serious students.

Twice during the week we left the campus to venture out and see how slavery is presented and discussed publicly. Our first trip was to nearby Mt. Vernon, the home and slave plantation of George Washington. Washington owned over 300 slaves, many of which he inherited when he married his wife Martha Custis. We toured the plantation with the help of Dennis Pogue, an archeologist employed at Mt. Vernon. Pogue showed us a re-creation of slave quarters and explained what the 90 or so slaves living at Mt. Vernon did. Armed with information from our various class readings, we peppered him with questions for 30 or so minutes. We also met with Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a new museum to be built on the National Mall in Washington, DC as part of the Smithsonian Institution.  Here, to, we asked numerous questions, including how slavery will be presented to the general public. This is harder than it sounds. Many people, black and white, do not want to talk about slavery, and perhaps wish it could be forgotten or overlooked.

We also watched two movies during the week. One was a dramatic interpretation of slavery by a Cuban filmmaker, and the other was HBO’s “Unchained Memories.” We discussed both of these at length, including how slavery is presented and remembered, and how we would use these films in the classroom.

There was also ample time for question and answer sessions, and teachers raised a number of issues throughout the week, including the paternalism of slavery, John Canoe societies and the increased use of the N word by students in schools.

Another, tangential benefit of the week was the rare opportunity to visit socially with each other devoid of students, spouses or children. We were essentially students, living in a college dorm room, and we did what students do at night. We socialized. The joy and pleasure of sitting with each other, talking, laughing and discussing should not be overlooked. Teaching is often an isolating experience. Adult interactions are usually sporadic and often interrupted. Here we got to be our adult selves again.

Finally, on the last day of the seminar, we discussed a packet of documents that each of us contributed to. Each participant had to find and edit two documents or images that related to slavery. For each one an introduction was written, questions for discussion added in, etc. This collection, some 45 documents in all, is a great resource for teaching about slavery in the classroom. They are short – one to two pages – and ready to be photocopied!

In sum, the week was a wonderful experience. It was one of the best professional development seminars I’ve ever attended. I learned a lot about slavery; I read several books on the subject; I had the high pleasure of listening to Dr. Berlin lecture on the topic; and I am ready and eager to share with my students much of what I have learned. I also thoroughly enjoyed interacting with my colleagues.

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