Curriculums for Liberation: Chicago and Black Education in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Teaching and HES

Thursday, May 4, 2023, 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: African American; Archives and Bibliography; Education


This panel focuses on the intellectual activism of Black educators in Chicago as they reworked systems of learning and research from the 1940s to the 1980s. We examine how an expansive set of educators, working in Chicago’s formal school system, private institutions, and community spaces such as public libraries and archives, co-constructed different kinds of curriculums for Black liberation. Their efforts varied from school lessons to pedagogical techniques and strategies for self-education. Though each paper grapples with different subjects and themes, overlapping networks and motivations reveal the presence of a collective movement. In the first paper, “‘The Chicago School’ and a Chicago Black Archive”, Melanie Chambliss considers how the Special Negro Collection at the George Cleveland Hall branch library encouraged community-authored studies in contrast to the detached scholarship coming from the University of Chicago. In the second, “A Constant Search for Better Ways,” Worth K. Hayes examines how Black teachers used private schools as unparalleled outlets for professional development, experimentation, and ultimately to reimagine education on their own terms. Lastly, Michael Hines’ “Knowledge is Power Only if it is Put into Action,” explores the legacy of educator Madeline Morgan, whose educational activism during the Second World War led to the adoption of the first African American history curriculum recognized by the Chicago Public Schools. Recent debates over the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” have represented the challenge to white supremacist historical and educational narratives as a sudden and contemporary phenomena. However, the scholarship represented in this panel makes clear that the historical and cultural narratives articulated in school curricula have been a battleground for Black liberation for generations. The methods and messages of these battles reveal as much about their respective historical moments as the historical narratives that they sought to correct. From the publishing of Carter G. Woodson’s The Story of the Negro Retold to recent viral syllabi like the #Charlestonsyllabus, education, broadly defined, has sought to equip people with resources and languages to better cope with their contemporary moment. Chicago has been and continues to be what scholar Elizabeth Todd Breland terms a “site of struggle” over the form and content of Black education, including conflicts over desegregation, community control, and school choice and culturally relevant curricula (Breland, 2018, 5). The city was a major destination for Black emigrants during the Great Migration and became a center of African American modernity and urban life. As such, it was also on the frontline of the struggle for Black rights in the fields of housing, politics, and especially education.This panel is an effort to bring the histories of Black educators to bear on current struggles in order to better understand the past and prefigure present day possibilities.

Papers Presented

"Knowledge is Only Power if it is Put Into Action": Madeline Morgan and Black History in the Chicago Public Schools

This paper reconstructs the pedagogy of Madeline Morgan (later Madeline Stratton Morris), an elementary social studies teacher in midcentury Chicago, whose 1942 Supplementary Units for the Course of Instruction in Social Studies became that first Black history curriculum adopted by the Chicago Public Schools, and one of the first such curricula used nationally. The paper explores Morgan’s unique pedagogy, one informed both by her deep rootedness in the cultural and intellectual foundations of the Chicago Black Renaissance, her participation in national conversations around Black history and culture including most notably the “fugitive pedagogies” of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), and by her familiarity with mainstream educational discourses developed in predominantly white spaces, particularly the social reconstructionist strain of educational progressivism endorsed by Northwestern University and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the Chicago Teachers College. I examine how Morgan synthesized these disparate influences, crafting a unique approach to teaching used Black History as an entry point to challenge dominant anti-black narratives and engage students in discussions of citizenship and civil rights. The paper traces the impact and influence of her thinking through an account of her activism throughout the Second World War and Post War period. Because the field of Curriculum History has largely been constructed as a grand narrative of (almost exclusively) white male theorists, focusing on Morgan provides a corrective and an opportunity to acknowledge and engage with Black women as authors and co-constructors of the curriculum alongside their male peers.

Presented By
Michael Hines, Stanford University

“‘A Constant Search for Better Ways’: Howalton Day School and the Development of Black Creative Spaces for Black Educational Creatives”

This paper reconstructs the curricular history of Howalton Day School, a high achieving private educational institution (k-8) on Chicago’s South Side from 1946 to 1985. In many ways, Howalton became a flagship institution for leading figures of Black Chicago, many of whom sent their children to the school. Patrons were particularly attracted to Howalton’s unique curriculum which drew from progressive educational models and a rich tradition of African-American pedagogy. While this paper highlights Howalton’s noteworthy instructional practices, it also considers how African-American communities constructed infrastructures that permitted them to develop curriculums of their own choosing. Several excellent studies have highlighted the unique learning opportunities that alternative institutions provided for Black students. This paper grapples with how such institutions carved out space for Black educational creatives to both employ their expertise and experiment with new instructional models. Most Black private schools were by necessity collective enterprises. The immense resources needed to effectively operate educational institutions were often in short supply for most African-Americans. Thus private schools relied on the technical expertise, financial support, and other forms of patronage from members of their respective communities. This paper will profile the individuals, both central and tangential, who helped shape Howalton’s curricular history. By including this wider range of contributors, we can better understand the extensive network of teachers, patrons, and parents that made Howalton’s educational program possible. In doing so, it hopes to further probe the potential connections between private school founders, public school educators, and Bronzeville institutions that shaped African-American education in Chicago.

Presented By
Worth K. Hayes, Tuskegee University

“The Chicago School” and a Chicago Black Archive: Redefining Community-Based Research during the Black Chicago Renaissance

This paper examines how the Special Negro Collection at the George Cleveland Hall branch library contrasted the community-based research popularized by sociologists at the University of Chicago. Robert Park, the leading figure in Chicago’s sociology department, had been teaching the importance of detached community research for decades before he retired in 1929, but when the Hall library opened in 1932, this branch proved the value of personal connection in producing transformative knowledge. This paper considers how the Hall library related to the objective and empirical scholarship coming from the “Chicago School.” This paper argues that the Hall library functioned as an alternative space that encouraged community-authored research rather than limiting most Black people to being the objects of in-depth studies. Carl B. Roden, the chief librarian over the Chicago Public Library, once said that libraries were “abstract symbol[s] of culture,” which had both tangible and intangible significance in “the topography of many an American community.” From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Hall branch library became Chicago’s primary site for research and programs on African American culture. This collection gave many African Americans their first opportunity to study their own history, and this paper analyzes the community’s use of this collection as a style of research and learning that was accessible, political, and unapologetically personal.

Presented By
Melanie Chambliss, Columbia College Chicago

Session Participants

Chair: Elizabeth Todd-Breland, University of Illinois Chicago
In her research and teaching, Professor Todd-Breland focuses on 20th-century United States urban and social history, African American history, and the history of education. Her work also explores interdisciplinary issues related to racial and economic inequality, urban public policy, neighborhood transformation, education policy, and civic engagement. Her book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), analyzes transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform from the 1960s to the present. Professor Todd-Breland’s writing has appeared in the Journal of African American History, Souls, and scholarly edited volumes. She has also contributed to popular outlets, including NPR, ESPN, the Washington Post, and local radio, television, print, and online media.

Presenter: Melanie Chambliss, Columbia College Chicago
Melanie Chambliss is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working on her manuscript, Saving the Race: Black Archives, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of Modernity. Her work has appeared in the Journal of African American History, the African American Review journal, and the edited collection The Unfinished Book. Her research has been supported by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson Foundation), the Ford Foundation, and the New York Public Library.

Presenter: Worth K. Hayes, Tuskegee University
Worth K. Hayes is an Associate Professor of History and Director of Academic and Learning Outcomes at Tuskegee University. His manuscript, Schools of Our Own: Black Chicago’s Golden Age of Private Education (Northwestern University Press, 2020) received the American Educational Studies Association Critics Choice Book Award. His work on African-American education, urbanization, and post-World War II activism has been published in the American Educational History Journal, the Journal of Negro Education, and several edited volumes. His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Vivian G. Harsh Society, and the Fulbright-Hays Program.

Presenter: Michael Hines, Stanford University
Michael Hines is an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. He earned his BA in history from Washington University in St. Louis and his MA and PhD in cultural and educational policy studies from Loyola University Chicago. His research has been published in academic journals including the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, History of Education Quarterly, and the Journal of African American History. He has also written for popular outlets including TIME, Chalkbeat, and The Washington Post.

Commentator: Ian Rocksborough-Smith, University of the Fraser Valley
Ian Rocksborough-Smith teaches U.S. history at the University of the Fraser Valley in S'ólh Téméxw / British Columbia, Canada. His research interests include the study of late 19th and 20th Century United States, public history, social movements, and histories of race, labor, religion, and empire in the Atlantic world. He has published in The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Harvard University’s African American National Biography, The Journal of American Studies of Turkey and The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society and in The Conversation (Canada). His book, entitled: Black Public History in Chicago, was published in 2018 from the University of Illinois Press.