6 June 2022
The classroom was dimly lit. Only the light from the rickety projector illuminated the space. On the screen was a list of the names of slaves and their owners. Owners and their slaves. The curly ink handwriting looked like gibberish. The mood was tense. When Mr. White asked questions, and students of different grades shouted their answers, all eyes were on the screen.
“That’s two L’s?” exclaimed one student. “It looks like cannoli,” another admitted. That confusion began few weeks ago when the students in Mr. White’s African-American Literature class began transcribing old files from Howard County consisting of the names of slave owners along with their slaves. Each student received 5 pages of names to sort into a Google sheet by name, age, gender, and slave owner, for it to go on record in Howard County. During class, they discussed that these old lists were made for owners to get compensation for their slaves. In some ways, these will also help families trace back their lineage.
To the students’ shock, these documents are barely recorded in the county. Most of them were unaware of the fact that the schools they attended are named after slave owners. Along with the streets that they live on and even the names of other counties, a few questioned why they were never taught this in school.
Harriet Tubman Lane, Hammond, and Glenelg and Howard High Schools are just a few examples of the lasting effect of slavery in Howard County. “I know a lot of people that went to Hammond Middle School and Elementary, and I’m 100% sure they had no idea that Hammond is the name of a slave owner,” said Kendall Dean, a senior in the African American Literature class. “We also saw Carol on the list; nobody talks about the fact that these guys were slave owners.”
“They had such massive influence and that’s why certain areas in Howard County have the name that they have,” added Alissa Suser, another senior in the class.
Only a few groups in the county were working on this historical project, such as Ms. Stratton and her class at Howard High School, and Marlena Jereaux, the director of the Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Organization in Howard County. This organization focuses on uncovering the true history of slavery in Maryland and keeping track of important historical files.
The students were even able to converse with Jereaux through a Google Meet. “She was a really nice woman,” started Dean, “she’s very passionate about her work and I like that she specifically wanted Howard County students to do this versus other adults. For us, we’re learning, but we’re making a connection at the same time.”
This project ultimately began when Mr. White received an email from Ms. Chaudry, explaining this huge opportunity for Howard County students to “do history,” in the words of White. He recalled that when Chaudry requested him and his class to take part, he said “absolutely.”
Mr. White can confidently think big with this project. He is able to picture schools using his students’ official transcriptions for their own research. “This is not some project that nobody’s ever going to use,” White claims. “This is really going to be an integral part of local history here in Howard County and even nationwide. You’re going to have historians that are writing books on slavery that are going to utilize these records that the students are making. It’s definitely a student driven project.” Many of the students may not even know that they are making history that could last more than a lifetime right now.
The idea that the most significant history could have occurred directly in someone’s backyard is a very recurring theme in the class’ current unit. Because of this, Mr. White is firmly against keeping the grimmer parts of that time period hidden from his students. In fact, he says that he is “honest with the material…and [he is] not going to sugarcoat it.” He continues, “When you’re studying history you have to look at it as objectively as you can and as honestly as you can.”
Highlighting the accounts of the young slaves was an integral part in exposing the unfiltered reality of slavery that students were not always taught in the average history class, especially not at a young age.
“It’s so important to learn the history of specifically where you are,” said Suser. “I remember in the fourth grade we ‘learned’ about Maryland history, which wasn’t really important. We should have continued to relate everything to how it happened. I feel like it makes you think more about history, like ‘this happened and it happened here,’ instead of just stories that you’re hearing.”
At the same time, Mr. White trusted his students not to take such a heavy concept lightly. Dean explained that there is “an innate trust between seniors and teachers,” since the class was mostly made up of students nearing adulthood. “We’re a trustworthy class,” she said.
The class spent a significant amount of time working together to identify written characters from the 1800s. The students actively compared the modern alphabet to how it would be written back then, since the documents could often be difficult to read. The names Natty, Caesar, and Carroll are only a few examples that caused productive debates during the period.
“I didn’t realize that was what a C looked like back then up until halfway through, and then it made so much more sense,” Suser commented. Dean also mentioned that she had a bit of experience with loopy writing styles because of her grandmother who always wrote in cursive.
The main point that Mr. White, Dean, Suser and other students wanted to push out of this project was the idea that people cannot just ignore the history that happened around them. “In Howard county, it’s not that we try to cover it up so much, but we try to have this air that we’re so progressive,” said Suser. “I know we’re one of the first integrated towns, but I feel like everything else just got brushed under the rug.”
Still, the students really enjoyed this project. Dean said that reading the names and writing them down was therapeutic, while Suser admitted that it was like a puzzle, where “when you get it, You feel accomplished.” Additionally, another senior named Lindsey Bloom won an award for her outstanding contribution and dedication to this unit.
The students being able to have fun doing this huge project added a great deal to its significance. The class openly expressed how much of a learning and growth experience this was for them. Truly, this research will change the history curriculum and the history of Howard County for decades to come.