The New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School (Sci High) and the University of New Orleans’ Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies will host “Freedom on the Move in New Orleans,” a K-12 student creative showcase that explores the lives of freedom-seeking enslaved people in New Orleans and south Louisiana.
The showcase, scheduled for Saturday, May 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sci High, will feature musical performances, visual art, podcasts, spoken word, video, and digital works created by students inspired by their study of the history of the resistance of enslaved people culled from the Freedom on the Move digital database. Admission to the showcase is free. Sci High is located at 2011 Bienville Street New Orleans, LA 70112.
Visual artwork and interactive exhibit elements will be on display throughout the day with scheduled performances, including music by Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, The Sci High Band, drumming and spoken word by students from Young Audiences Charter School-Burmaster.
The first 50 people in attendance will receive a free copy of the book and CD “La Ker Creole: Creole Compositions and Stories from Louisiana,” published by the Neighborhood Story Project and featuring the music of Barnes.
“Witnessing students learn about the history of their city through the stories of the freedom-seeking people fills me with hope,” said UNO history professor Mary Niall Mitchell, the principal investigator on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission grant and director of the Midlo Center.
“The students’ creative work, which will be featured at the showcase, brings lots of emotions to the surface for the historians on this project.”
The Public Engagement Project
Since fall 2021, students at five New Orleans public charter schools—Homer A. Plessy Community School, Young Audiences Charter School-Burmaster, The Living School, Benjamin Franklin High School, and Sci High—have joined with local artists, museum professionals and university researchers on Freedom on the Move in New Orleans, a public engagement project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
The goal of the public engagement project, according to Freedom On The Move (FOTM) historians, is to take learning “into the streets, to help students engage with the histories of enslaved people that can be tied to both the environment and the particular topography of the city of New Orleans and its environs.”
FOTM received a nearly $150,000 grant in 2021 from The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, an arm of The National Archives, to create a pilot project that could be replicated nationally.
The project was designed by curriculum innovators at The Hard History Project (THHP) and the historians working on Freedom on the Move, a collaborative digital database of fugitive slave advertisements.
The digital database, of which Mitchell is a lead historian, is the largest digital collection of newspaper advertisements for people escaping from North American slavery. Culled from 18th- and 19th-century U.S. newspapers, the ads, placed by enslavers, are used to document the lives of people escaping bondage.
Additionally, jailers posted ads describing people they had apprehended in search of the enslavers who claimed the fugitives as property. Created to control the movement of enslaved people, the ads ultimately preserved the details of individual lives, their personality, appearance and life story. Taken collectively, the ads constitute a detailed, concise and rare source of information about the experiences of enslaved people.
“Freedom on the Move in New Orleans” facilitates place-based learning and student engagement with the agency and resistance of enslaved people as documented in the advertisements in the FOTM database. Centered on the stories of self-liberating people found in “runaway ads,” the showcase will feature the students’ creative responses to these primary documents and to lessons and field trips illuminating the history of slavery and enslaved people in New Orleans.
“Freedom on the Move’s historians all agreed that New Orleans was the place to begin this work,” Mitchell said. “Enslaved people built this city and its economy, especially its oldest parts, many of which are still standing. Students can see the material legacies of that forced labor everywhere–on plantations, French Quarter streets and levees. And through FOTM, they develop a stake in telling the stories of individual enslaved people seeking freedom in New Orleans.”
Teaching the “hard history” via placed-based learning
With participating students from third-grade through high school, this pilot project demonstrates the capacity of teachers and students to explore the “hard history” of slavery in productive and illuminating ways.
While third-grade might seem a challenging age to tackle the topic of slavery and resistance, teacher JP Payne at Plessy Community School says that working with the stories of individual enslaved people found in the database has given him a helpful point of entry for his young students.
Without diminishing the tragedy of slavery, Payne said he appreciates the chance to explore details from the lives of people who are not well-known historical figures. With FOTM, Payne said he has been able “to focus on unsung heroes—on the bravery and bold actions of individuals who don't often get light shed on them.”
Katelyn Wills, a history and English teacher at The Living School, says working with FOTM has been useful given the current politics surrounding the teaching of slavery in K-12 classrooms.
“It gives kids a chance to draw their own conclusions about the history of slavery,” Wills said. “At a time when so many people are debating about what we should say to children, we can let them see for themselves and form their own opinions, based on the hard facts from that era. So I'm deeply grateful for that.”
Working with the runaway ads in the FOTM database, Areonne Howard, who teaches eighth-graders Louisiana History at Young Audiences Charter School-Burmaster in Gretna, said students grasped the long history of racialized policing in the experiences of enslaved people seeking freedom.
“They asked a lot of questions like ‘why is this still happening?’” Howard said.
After completing lessons on the historical context of slavery in New Orleans and the experiences of enslaved people, students explored the French Quarter led by Shana M. Griffin and later toured the grounds of the Whitney Plantation Museum located about 45 miles upriver from New Orleans. While exploring these spaces, students visualized the social, spatial and cultural histories of enslaved people.
Derek Rankins, who teaches Africana Studies and history at Sci High, said placed-based learning is a powerful teaching tool.
“They have a relationship to these ads, right? When an ad says Rampart Street, you know, these are signifiers that we all know.”
Chris Dier, a teacher at Ben Franklin High School, agreed.
“A lot of my students are familiar with the French Quarter and areas around the city but taking field trips, they get to see streets where slave markets existed or see exactly where the enslaved population lived,” said Dier. “And it shows them that this history doesn't exist in a vacuum; that people lived here and through horrific experiences to build what we have today.”
Exploring the French Quarter, visiting the Whitney Plantation and then working with the FOTM database, Dier said, demonstrates in material ways “the resilience that so many people had. These are experiences that our textbooks simply can't capture with students.”
Artists share their creative processes
Local artists Chuck Perkins, Darren Harper and Charlie Johnson, as well as historian/graphic history writer Brian Mitchell, and the team at BeLoud Studios, visited local classrooms to share their creative processes with students and guide them in developing creative responses inspired by the resistance of enslaved people documented in the Freedom on the Move database.
BeLoud helped Plessy’s third grade students create podcasts. Charlie Johnson worked with Sci High students on visual pieces and Harper and Perkins worked with Young Audiences students on drumming and spoken word. The high school students at The Living School will be displaying images and hand-built lanterns from the Liberation Garden they created on their campus.
One of the aims of the public engagement project is to develop new models for connecting K-12 education with the research and resources of historians at universities.
“Teachers are on the frontlines of public history,” said Kate Shuster, founding director of The Hard History Project. “We have partnered with FOTM to develop more engaging and creative ways to share the historians’ amazing research and database with young people.”
“Freedom on the Move in New Orleans” is a project of Freedom on the Move in collaboration with the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School (Sci High), The Hard History Project, Cornell University, The Whitney Plantation Museum, Shana M. Griffin, Benjamin Franklin High School, Homer A. Plessy Community School, Young Audiences Charter School-Burmaster, The Living School, and The Neighborhood Story Project. This project is funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
Contact: Kathryn O’Dwyer, Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO, firstname.lastname@example.org