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Freedom Introduces African American History Class

Teacher Joan Lewis-Osborne makes slideshows each class to teach her students about different aspects of African American history

Starting next year, Freedom will be offering an African American history class. Not to be confused with the Survey of African history, this class covers African American history throughout US history, going all the way back to the 1400s. Teacher Joan Lewis-Osborne had the opportunity to teach a pilot for this class this year, and she urges students to consider taking the class next year. Below is a Q and A with Lewis-Osborne regarding some of the benefits and reasons for taking this class.

Q: What made you want to teach the African American history class this year?

Teaching an African American History class has always been a dream of mine! Being chosen to teach this course is such an honor and a privilege!  The Governor of Virginia created a commission in 2019 to make recommendations for teaching a class in African American History in Virginia School divisions from around the State of Virginia were asked to recommend one teacher from their County/Division to participate.  I applied and was grateful to be chosen from the applicants in Loudoun County. The Virginia Department of Education then chose 25 teachers from across Virginia to teach the pilot course on African American history.  All 25 of us participate in weekly cohort meetings with the other teachers in the pilot, as well as receive bi-weekly Professional Development on various subjects in African American History from Professors at VCU, Norfolk State and other VA Universities.  I have really enjoyed the teaching and the training so far and look forward to doing this class face to face with all of my students at Freedom in the fall!

Q: What are some of the most important topics covered in this class?

The new African American History course covers African American history from its roots in the great African Civilizations of the 1400s and 1500s right through to modern day history, like the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests.  I really enjoy the units on African American folkways: the invention of Southern Cuisine by enslaved cooks, the unique quilting designs made by enslaved women, African and African American art and folk art, and the invention of ragtime, jazz, rock, soul, R&B, rap, and hip hop by African American musicians.  We also go more in depth on subjects like African American soldiers in the wars (Revolutionary, 1812, Civil, WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam). These are subject that most students don’t get to study in depth in their survey courses on history, and I have found that students enjoy these subjects as well.

Q: What has been your favorite thing about teaching this class this year?

My favorite thing about teaching this class has been the involvement and interest of the students who are taking it.  They participate and ask questions, even though we are still in distance learning, and they also say that they appreciate the ability to learn material in a different way.  There are on-line modules used in the course that are created by WHRO (the public media company) and the Virginia Department of Education.  There are online videos, art exhibits and historical content that is presented in an interactive manner.  No book is necessary because all of the information is provided digitally or supplemented by me as a teacher.  Students have complimented the quality and interactivity of this method of learning.

Q: Why do you feel it is important to have a separate class for African American history?

African American History is a very important subject for students to take.  Survey courses in American History often do not take the time to study or appreciate the many contributions that African Americans made to the building of this great nation, largely without receiving recognition or payment because initially they were enslaved and then later, their contributions were overlooked because of racism and segregation. I graduated from high school in rural Minnesota, in an area where my family was one of the only African American families. In all of my years in school there, I was never taught African American History in any meaningful fashion, in fact slavery was only mentioned and glossed over in my history classes and we did not study the Civil Rights movement or modern day African American history at all.  I graduated from Harvard College with a degree in American History and never had one African American History Professor.  It wasn’t until I was in Law School at New York University, when I took a class on Race and the Law and read the book, In The Matter of Color, that my Professor, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. had written, that I had an African American professor teach me the history of race and institutional racism in America and the key role that the courts in Virginia played in cementing that institutional racism.  I think that it is important that student’s study and understand all of the facts about the founding of our nation, not just the ones that cast our Founders in a positive light.  Because Virginia played such a key role in the founding of this nation, it is imperative for high school students in Virginia to understand the paradox between founding a nation that stands for the proposition that “All Men are Created Equal” while at the same time codifying and refusing to put an end to the institution of slavery.  This is important because so many of our modern-day struggles with basic civil and human rights stem from this founding paradox.

Q: What would you say to students who are considering taking this class?

Please sign up, I think you will really enjoy it and learn so much more about African Americans and their contributions to America than you have in other courses!

Nathan Welz, a Freedom senior who took Lewis-Osborne’s class this year, enjoyed taking African American history.

“Mrs. Osborne has done a very good job making the content in African American history interesting and thought provoking,” Welz said. “I definitely recommend this class for anyone who wants to go in depth and learn about African American history.”

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