Without question, textbooks that are most commonly required by, and used in public schools throughout this country woefully underrepresent and/or misrepresent the accomplishments and contributions that Black people have made in the United States. In most cases, when Black people are mentioned, it is usually in the context of their enslavement in America, or in some facet of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. While both historical references in the previous sentence are important studies, they certainly do not represent the sum total of the history of Black people in America.
What is at the heart of this tremendous dearth of information regarding Black people has been a very much ingrained and pervasive form of institutionalized racism that diminishes or marginalizes the accomplishment of Black people. For, as University of California, Berkeley history professor Leon Litwack notes:
No group of scholars was more deeply implicated in the miseducation of American youth and did more to shape the thinking of generations of Americans about race and blacks than historians . . . whether by neglect or distortion, the scholarly monographs and texts they authored perpetuated racial stereotypes and myths.(2)
This unit, intended for use in grades 6-12 (with required variations), can be used as one of many ways to effectively challenge the current perspective that seeks to make the history of European descendants the predominate focus in public education, at the expense of the important histories of Black people. Thive as its primary objective a fair and accurate portrayal of the varying roles played by all people.
Along those same lines, simply isolating one or two high-achieving Blacks does not accomplish much unless it leads to something much more comprehensive in breadth and scope. That is, history is the story of people—not a person or persons—and must be viewed at all times in the larger context of world events. While heroism has its place, they are not the most important things to consider here. What is important to consider is the search for the proper roles that people have played in history, which—if done honestly—can and should lead to curriculum inclusion.
As such this unit, which discusses the life and times of William Lanson,—dubbed New Haven’s African King—is truly about more than Lanson. It is about curricular exclusion and inclusion, the development of New Haven as a thriving port town, the near maximizing of human potential, the inspiration that one often garners from knowing of the efforts and determination of one who attained in spite of all the odds stacked against him. It is about the human spirit, about self-reliance, about excellence.
This unit has several generic objectives for a curriculum infusion process. (More specific objectives can be found in the lesson plan section of this unit).
1. A Story. Storytelling is one of the most underutilized, but highly effective ways to teach and transmit history (irrespective of the grade level). Story work best in keeping the interest of students and provide an interesting departure from traditional historical lectures.
2. Master the Story. All teachers in every discipline should have a working knowledge of the history of Black people in New Haven. In other words, teaches should have a repertoire of content and principles of this history which allows them to maximize use of any curriculum materials they may develop. For teachers to effectively exercise professional judgment, the judgment itself must be rooted in a fundamental understanding of the history of Black New Haveners.
3. Support Base. Appropriate books, videotapes, maps, etc., must accompany this lesson, and be obtainable by classroom teachers. Conferences, resource people, field trips and special programs which high-light the achievements of Black New Haveners are also necessary.
4. Community Awareness and Participation.This unit must have the backing of members of the community of all ethnic groups who have extensive knowledge of the history of Black New Haveners. If this happens, there is the possibility of greater cultural exchange and storytelling.(3)
Finally, there is perhaps no Black New Havener who has been as overlooked and or marginalized as master engineer William Lanson. Lanson deserves recognition for many reasons, but is most commonly known as the person responsible for extending New Haven’s Long Wharf out to deep water. This made New Haven a thriving port town.
The story of William Lanson is truly one of determination, wisdom and community building at time when many Blacks—in both the North and South—were mired in either de facto or chattel slavery. His is a story that inspires and informs; that enlightens and encourages. And while Lanson would meet hard times, and eventually die in Almshouse, his spirit was never broken and he truly earned the title of New Haven’s African King.