It has been said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. It’s a sentiment spreading across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
“If you want to understand why people are in the streets,” explained Grace Moser, associate professor of history at St. Charles Community College, “you need to understand our history, and black history is our history. We are living in extraordinary times and history is such a useful tool to help us navigate it.”
In 2019, Moser decided to go on sabbatical with the goal of crafting an immersive African American history class at SCC. To be offered in the Fall 2020 semester, African American History Since 1877 will focus on post-Civil War to modern times. In the Spring 2021 semester, African American History to 1877 will focus on ancient Africa to pre-Civil War.
“I wanted to create a course that not only emphasized the importance understanding and knowing African American history,” she explained, “but also taught students activism and ways to research and actively preserve black history.”
She started by gathering as much information as she could. She traveled from St. Louis to Memphis to Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, visiting museums along the way.
“I wanted to know more about African American history than what I was taught in college,” she said. “I think what surprised me the most was how many American cultural and technological innovations came from the black community. We wouldn’t be America without African Americans.”
In her travels, Moser discovered a vast amount of information regarding African American influence. She also discovered something unexpected.
“I was surprised at how much joy can be found in black culture and history. There was so much more than just the oppression and discrimination. There was grit and determination. There was innovation,” she said.
Though Moser previously found inspiration from activists and leaders like WEB DuBois and Ida B Wells-Barnett, she found new inspiration from the voices and talents of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She was taken aback by the innovation and determination of the Negro Baseball Leagues and in the communities of segregated neighborhoods, thriving despite exclusion and discrimination.
When she returned to her home in Ferguson, Mo., she started seeing a clear path forward for her course.
“We have not learned the nuanced and complicated parts of black history, just the blips when black history affected whites — slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement,” she explained. “There is so much more. That’s what this class is about.”
While Moser has been dreaming up this course for several years, she believes the timing of the class is very appropriate.
“I can’t even begin to say why this class is so important,” she said. “We as a culture have excluded minority voices in our history. As a result of that exclusion, we have a disconnect with modern protests and activism. I’ve been surprised at the collective protest around George Floyd’s death. I keep finding myself asking why now? Why not with Trayvon, Tamir, or John Crawford? Why not with any of the other hashtags we’ve seen? And I have to think it is because America is finally realizing the systemic injustice that has always existed.”
Creating cynics is not the goal of the class. Moser believes the class will encourage critical thinking and arm them with the tools and knowledge they need to address change. It’s about learning other perspectives, she says. The class will have a service-learning aspect to it, meaning students will be required to volunteer at least 15 hours at a relevant organization during the semester and write a reflective essay of their experiences.
“I hope that students will be able to understand the present after taking this class. I hope they will realize that black history is not negative history. It’s not just the bad things that have happened in our country. There is so much to be proud of in African American history. So much to be proud of collectively as a nation,” Moser added.
She also hopes to dispel any myths that have been created and teach students how to think critically by learning other interpretations of American actions and policies.
“I hope students will leave my class empowered and a little more empathetic to others. I don’t just want them to learn about the past,” she said. “I want them to learn how to create the change they want to see.”
Moser hopes to offer African American History to 1877 for the Spring 2021 semester, which covers ancient Africa to the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Registration is open at St. Charles Community College for the Fall semester at www.stchas.edu