As I recently waited to pick up my child from school, I noticed a plaque that said the school was built in 1939 as part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration. I had walked by this sign several times and never noticed. Putting on my teacher hat, I thought about the many questions this plaque could stimulate – What was the Works Progress Administration? Why did they decide to build a school in my neighborhood? What was school like then? Why did the school’s name change? I thought about how interesting it would be for students to investigate how their school fits into the story of the United States, and I started to wonder how inquiry could help my students explore their community’s histories.
Community history is a natural avenue for inquiry. Investigations of a community’s people, places, and past create a relevant purpose for inquiry, especially if the questions emerge from students’ curiosities, and connect to broader historical themes. Community history introduces students to a range of disciplinary sources and skills, including opportunities for students to gather sources themselves (e.g., oral histories). Community history provides opportunities for students to take informed action in meaningful, tangible ways. Clearly, community history and inquiry make a powerful duo.
Enter Fabric of the Past: Weaving the Twentieth Century at Beaumont Mill Village in South Carolina. This workshop seeks to equip teachers with the tools, skills, and confidence necessary to engage students in community history through inquiry. This National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks in American History and Culture Workshop will bring 72 teachers from all over the country to Spartanburg, South Carolina in July 2022. The workshop will model community history through inquiry with an examination of a story central to Spartanburg’s identity – textiles. From its emergence as the nation’s textile hub in the early 1900s through the closure of many notable mills in the late 1990s, textiles have shaped the lives and landscapes of this community. Teachers will learn about Thomas Bomar, a prominent African American brick mason who built many of the smokestacks that still dot the skyline, tour Beaumont Mill Village and speak with residents whose childhoods were shaped by the mill, and speak with architects and entrepreneurs seeking to preserve mill history in ways that adapt to the changing economy. It’s a powerful and versatile story that provides a framework teachers across the nation can use to examine industries that have shaped their community’s past, present, and future.
Throughout this project, my colleagues and I have gained deeper knowledge of and respect for our community, but what I find more valuable is the way conducting community history has created community. We are using workshop publicity to amplify the Beaumont Mill Village Neighborhood Association’s communication and outreach. We are partnering with the Spartanburg County Historical Association and Spartanburg County Public Library to highlight ways such groups can support teachers. We are conducting oral histories and gathering historical materials, all of which will be digitally archived and publically accessible. We are learning more about each other and the joys of engaging in interdisciplinary work. I am reminded that inquiry’s focus on Taking Informed Action stems from a similar community based ethos. Community is created in the investigation and goal of civic engagement with questions that matter to us, our students, and our communities.
We are excited to share our community history adventure with teachers and hope to inspire teachers to take their students on a similar journey. Community history through inquiry can build students’ knowledge, skill, empathy, and agency. It reminds students that history did not just happen out there. It happened in their own neighborhoods…maybe in their own classroom.
Interested in applying? Applications are accepted through March 1, 2022. Learn more at publications.uscupstate.edu/neh/.