Timely exploration of the fight for Black history curriculum in segregated Chicago schools

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The daughter of an elevator operator who wended his way from rural West Virginia to Chicago in 1903, Madeline Morgan grew up in a city transformed by an extraordinary influx of Black Americans.

In an exodus known as the Great Migration, millions of Southern Black people moved north between 1910 and 1940. They sought opportunity and equality in education and employment. Foremost, they were fleeing the terror of Jim Crow.

First major initiative to teach Black history

In segregated Chicago, which flaunted its own brand of racism, Morgan launched the nation’s first major initiative to teach Black history to public school students. In “A Worthy Piece of Work: The Untold Story of Madeline Morgan and the Fight for Black History in Schools” (Beacon Press), Stanford historian Michael Hines recounts how Morgan came to develop a “pedagogical counter-narrative” to the white version of American history.

This book couldn’t be timelier, as Americans continue to debate the inclusion and interpretation of Black history in school curriculum. Arguably, the history lessons imbibed by today’s students bear remarkable similarity to those which Morgan encountered when she entered high school around 1920.

By that time, Morgan had already recognized that educating as many people as possible about Black history was entwined with the march toward social justice. While she trained to become an educator at Chicago Teachers College and Northwestern University, neither school was especially welcoming to Black students, and strong support for her ideas came from Chicago’s Black institutions and organizations.

A counter-narrative to the white version of American history

The Phi Delta Kappa Sorority, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, and three Black newspapers including the Chicago Defender, counted among these influential groups. Their leaders agreed with Morgan, who became a classroom teacher during the late 1920s, that the school system’s annual Negro History Week was inadequate at best.

In February 1941, at 35, Morgan proposed “an experimental project in the study of Negro history in the Chicago Public Schools” to white superintendent William H. Johnson. The response was favorable for several reasons, Hines suggests.

First, the U.S.’ entrance to World War II cast new light on Americans’ hypocrisy. How dare we fight fascism abroad while our own nation sanctioned racial segregation? Suddenly there was an imperative to treat Black people as full citizens. “The Roosevelt administration,” Hines writes, needed “to assure Black audiences that their patriotism and sacrifice were recognized.”

Further, Hines cites “interest convergence,” a useful term he attributes to lawyer and activist Derrick Bell, who observed that Black demands for civil rights are turned away unless they align with the interests of white policymakers. That was certainly the case with Johnson’s adoption of Morgan’s proposed curriculum.

Finally, Morgan’s plan built on “tolerance education” and “intercultural education,” academic movements of the 1930s that promoted “democracy at home” by looping Black history into the immigrant experience. One might say the programs helped pave the way for revising the conventional Anglo-Saxon perspective.

Such incremental change occurred against the backdrop of the progressive education movement popularized during the 1920s. Its proponents, including the philosopher John Dewey, hoped to abolish lockstep education, in which each student is taught at the same pace. They also embraced learning by doing, creative expression, and the idea that school should be child-centered and teacher-directed.

It did not take long for Morgan to realize Black history factored little, if at all, in the progressive curriculum.

“As she began to teach,” writes Hines, “Morgan would take the pedagogies and approaches of progressive education but apply them to realities that her white contemporaries rarely addressed.”

Setting the precedent for a future of Black history education

In researching and writing “Supplementary Units for the Course of Instruction in Social Studies,” Morgan and her assistant, teacher Bessie M. King, faced an unusual challenge.

Not only would they introduce new information to Black and white students and teachers; they would also banish grotesque stereotypes, lies, and myths about Black Americans and Africa.

The subjects of science and history had always contained “negative discourses surrounding Black identity,” Hines argues, with no recognition of intellectual and artistic achievement among Black people. Creating a new curriculum required deconstructing the old one.

In May 1942, Johnson and the board of education voted to incorporate the Supplementary Units into the public school curriculum. Drawing positive reviews, acclaim for Morgan, and mixed results depending on the classroom teacher, it stayed in place until the war ended.

After 1945, the nation’s postwar conservatism and a series of indifferent superintendents led Chicago to put aside the Supplementary Units. This period also saw the decline of progressive education.

Hines has told an important story. Morgan was a great teacher, a bold thinker, and a social activist of the highest order. Hines has faith that she will inspire educators who advocate for a true Black history curriculum nationwide.