Harvard University has launched The Black Teacher Archives, a major new research project to explore the history of African American education.
The first phase of the project will archive and digitize the state journals of Colored Teachers Associations, which operated for more than 100 years, from 1861 through 1970.
Project leaders say providing access to these materials, largely the products of teachers in segregated Southern schools, will revolutionize research in the history of education, African American studies, and the study of critical pedagogy.
“Through these journals, we see Black schoolteachers as both thinkers and doers, what we might call ‘scholars of the practice,’” said Jarvis Givens, co-principal investigator and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “For more than a century, they were engaging in deep study; combining the best thinking from the mainstream educational domain — which excluded them — with the political and cultural ideas generated in their own Black intellectual networks.
“In light of this, the professional world of these educators must be taken on its own terms,” Givens said. “These journals will help us to do that. They will help us tell more dynamic stories of Black educators, especially given all that becomes possible once historical sources are digitized.”
James E. Ford, executive director of North Carolina-based Center of Racial Equity and Education (CREED), which works to close opportunity gaps in education for students of color, said this project could possibly address the issue of equity between Black and white students.
“With a project like this we can seize upon what has worked historically, and I think it would make for a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to how we teach,” Ford said. “The cool thing is the information is not exclusive. Perhaps teachers now white, Black or otherwise can learn how to apply those things to students and maybe that can give them a better chance at accessing the curriculum and better engagement in the lesson.”
Ford believes the project can also shed a light on successful practices from Black teachers of the past that often goes overlooked today.
“We learn the wisdom from the ancestors. … Black approaches to teaching and learning that can be unearthed and may have relevance in the modern context,” he said. “And I think that’s the most exciting thing about this project. … We may end up finding out that our ancestors captured something that we have underutilized.”
The Black Teacher Archives will be funded for two years with a $610,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, and Givens will lead the project, partnering with scholars and archivists at historically Black colleges and universities.
“This is a world of teachers who cultivated dreams in generations of Black people, while living under persecution,” Givens said. Their stories have so much to teach us.”