African American Women's Voices: Using Primary Sources to Introduce Students to the Civil War

By Dillard, Benita R. | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

African American Women's Voices: Using Primary Sources to Introduce Students to the Civil War


Dillard, Benita R., Black History Bulletin


There hadn't been too many other options. We couldn't tell how many people were shooting at us. It could have been hundreds judging by the amount of fire. However many there were, they wanted us dead and they surrounded us. No one shooting at us was wearing a uniform. They were just men, most of them in Western clothes-shirts, jeans, athletic shoes. Some wore traditional robes and sandals. It wasn't the army I had expected to call an enemy in this fight. They were just men, angry, screaming, deadly men who outnumbered us in a big way and they were killing us, killing my friends.

--Shoshana Johnson (1)

I read aloud the above excerpt from Shoshana Johnson's autobiography, I'm Still Standing." From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen--My Journey Home, to my ninth-grade English students. I wanted to see what my students knew about a more recent historical event prior to starting the unit on African American women's contributions to the Civil War using primary sources. As an English teacher and researcher interested in African American women's history, I design lessons to show students how certain aspects of language arts and history overlap.

After reading this excerpt, I had students write for three minutes on the following questions:

1. Where did this event take place?

2. When did it take place?

3. Who were involved?

4. What would you do in this situation?

Once students finished journaling, I mentioned Ms. Johnson's name. The class could not recall her name, but they were familiar with the Iraq War. I explained to them that, while fighting for our freedom and protection in the Iraq War, Ms. Johnson became the first African American woman prisoner of war. After explaining Ms. Johnson's contribution to the Iraq War, we watched an interview of Shoshana Johnson found on CNET TV Web site: (http://cnettv.cnet.com/ formerpow-shoshana-johnsord9742-1_53-50006731.html).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

African American women's contributions to wars, particularly the Civil War (1861-1865), are rarely recorded in school textbooks. According to Geneva Gay, an internationally recognized scholar in multicultural education, most textbooks used in schools confirm the status, culture, and contributions of the dominant group (European Americans). (2) Scholar and historian Ella Forbes argued that in the case of Harriet Yubman or Sojourner Truth, their stories are usually told from the perspective of the White male participant which prevailed when the Civil War is discussed. When the African American Civil War participation is discussed, the African American male is highlighted. (3)

In my class, however, I asked students to discuss their prior knowledge about Harriet Tubman; some mentioned that they read about Ms. Tubman's Underground Railroad, while others had never heard the name. Collectively, the class did not know Ms. Tubman served in many roles in the Civil War, particularly as a spy, because she knew it would lead to the abolition of slavery. Many students were surprised to hear about the many contributions made by Ms. Tubman and other African American women during wartime.

Because most school textbooks offered an interpretation of history by people who did not witness the event or live through it, I designed a lesson that offered opportunities for students to readprimary sources (e.g., letters, diaries, manuscripts, journals, images, autobiographies, etc.) written by African American women who actually experienced, lived through, and made contributions to the Civil War. Exposing students to primary sources enabled them to read the untold stories, the stories often omitted from school textbooks* More importantly, some researchers found that providing students with opportunities to read primary sources allowed them to become a part of the "historical moment," engaging in critical conversations that positioned them as "historical actors" with "real voices who can identify and connect with history. …

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