Atlanta, School Teachers, and the History of Race Relations 

Visits to sites relating to city's Jim Crow past have lasting impact

HUMANITIES, November/December 2015, Volume 36, Number 6

Seventy-two teachers participated this summer in one-week workshops on the history of the color line. Educators studied the city’s Jim Crow past by visiting relevant Atlanta landmarks, scaling the steps to the old colored entrance to Fox Theatre, trekking by bus to view an obelisk in memory of Confederate dead resting in the cemetery there, and visiting Piedmont Park, site of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” address. The experience gleaned from the NEH-funded Landmarks of American History and Culture workshops was immersive and hands-on, and, in the case of the 95 steps black moviegoers needed to climb until 1962 to enter the extravagantly designed Fox, “excruciating.” One teacher from Nashville remarked, “Just think about the mental impact of what they went through. All I can think of is how strong they were to survive that.”

That Nashville teacher was Sean Bethune, quoted by at-large writer Bill Torpy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who reported on the NEH institute in his column, after he accompanied teachers from the classroom to the landmarks to observe their reactions. David Strausbaugh, a high school history teacher from Ohio, who also teaches contemporary issues, told Torpy, “When we talk about racial issues [in class] I get push-back. Some kids ask, ‘Why do we have to talk about this?’”

While standing before the monument to 6,900 Confederate soldiers, the teachers pondered the site’s impact both as “the point of memorialization” and as a testament to the narrative of the Lost Cause. At Piedmont Park, site of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, they listened to Eric Fields, a black teacher of American government from Jacksonville, as he read aloud a section from the speech Booker T. Washington gave, in which he called for a greater piece of the economic pie for black Americans while remaining socially and politically separate.

“More than a century later, social separation is still largely there,” Torpy concedes in conclusion, “but there is always hope for mutual progress.”