Kristina Rizga: How are the Civil War and Reconstruction taught at Mississippi schools?
Chuck Yarborough: They are not taught for the most part, unfortunately. In theory, students are supposed to have been taught the Civil War and Reconstruction before arriving here, but the vast majority of them have not been taught Reconstruction. A few more learned something about the Civil War, but not a lot. They have been taught pretty well the horrors of slavery, but they have not been taught the complexities of those systems: how it developed and its continued effects to this day. So when they arrive in my classroom, I start with the end of the Civil War—1865—and then I teach Reconstruction for the first several weeks of the class.
I teach with the simple assessment of my professors in college, which I think is spot on: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And we begin this discussion by reading the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, which makes it clear that the Civil War happened because white southerners desired to defend slavery as an institution for their own benefit.
I suspect that my generation—people in their 40s or 50s—were taught something different. They were taught that there were all these other constitutional issues and it was really about states’ rights. That’s a kinder and gentler reason for people to have fought each other. And if you believe that, then you believe that southern Confederates were just like the Founding Fathers of the United States who were fighting a political struggle.
You can’t understand American history without understanding the steps forward, racially and socioeconomically, that Reconstruction presented initially, and then the steps backward that were taken with the violent reestablishment of white supremacy. You can’t understand the present without seeing the connections between this history and the socioeconomic and racial imbalances it created. But Reconstruction is not on the state test. Therefore, the schools that are teaching the state tests are not teaching Reconstruction at all, and in today’s society, that’s particularly problematic.
Rizga: What kind of learning experiences have helped you bring out the best work in your students?
Yarborough: I think classroom work has to empower students academically and socially. School is so much more than academic content. Education is also about a sense of community, collaboration, empathy, and confidence. At some point, I’m a life coach—and this means that I have to show students that they matter and that their work matters. All of this helps them develop a sense of place and belonging. When that happens, they produce their best work.
With the research in the local archives and performance projects that we do in the community, we try to make history come alive. The reason this approach works for so many students, I believe, is that they see how the work they do matters to a bigger community: how it resonates, challenges the community to reach a new level of understanding, and sets a model for leading in a community.