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Albemarle teachers engage with “hard history” in new initiative
Charlene Green, October 2018
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Credit: Zack Wajsgras, The Daily Progress
Charlene Green, manager of the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights presents historical information to a group of local teachers at the University of Virginia on Wednesday.
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Josh Mandell | Wednesday, October 03, 2018 at 10:10 p.m.

Albemarle County Public Schools on Wednesday launched Reframing the Narrative, a yearlong review and evaluation of the division’s social studies curriculum.

“The idea is for teachers and students to confront ‘hard history’ in gaining a deeper understanding of the past,” said county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita.

Reframing the Narrative begins in the midst of an anti-racist movement by local activists that has dominated public comment at recent School Board meetings.

Representatives of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition have demanded a ban on Confederate symbols in the division’s student dress policy. The board is waiting to receive guidance from legal counsel and to review a new anti-discrimination policy that is currently being drafted by a committee of high school students.

Michael Gambino, a history teacher at Albemarle High School, said that although he hasn’t seen any Confederate symbols on his students’ clothing in his first semester at the school, it is important for teachers to help students understand the history behind them.

“A lot of tension between different groups comes from not acknowledging things in our history that have caused real pain,” Gambino said.

Charlene Green, manager of the Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights, on Wednesday led about 20 teachers on a tour of significant sites in Charlottesville’s racial and ethnic history.

Green gave a similar tour for Charlottesville High School teachers and staff in August.

“We heard about what the city schools did, and it sounded like a great idea,” said John Hobson, Albemarle’s lead coach for social studies.

In a PowerPoint presentation before the tour, Green gave a brief overview of the history of slavery in Central Virginia and introduced some of the area’s prominent black landowners from the 19th century.

Green said some historic African-American communities near Crozet might be good subjects for research projects by Albemarle students.

“No one knows where [their homes] were located,” Green said. “When land gets bought by developers, history can get lost.”

After the presentation, Green and the teachers took a school bus to the University of Virginia Lawn.

“The university has done a lot of wonderful things, but there also is a dirty side that we don’t often talk about, that the university is just starting to acknowledge,” Green said.

Before the Civil War, UVa medical students and faculty often dissected bodies of enslaved laborers that they robbed from cemeteries.

“Not only were those black and brown bodies totally mistreated as humans when they were alive, they were also desecrated in death,” Green said.

Green also spoke about eugenics research conducted at UVa early in the 20th century, and the university’s refusal to admit African-American students until the 1950s.

“It’s part of the legacy of UVa that we need people to understand,” Green said.

The teachers later gathered around the statue of Thomas Jefferson on University Avenue, where white supremacists on Aug. 11, 2017, cornered and threatened counter-protesters with minimal intervention by police.

Green encouraged the teachers to discuss the white supremacist events in Charlottesville with students, families and each other.

“I know it’s controversial, but it’s not going to go away if we don’t talk about it,” Green said.

The teachers also visited Vinegar Hill, the site of a black neighborhood and business district that Charlottesville residents voted to demolish in 1960. Poll taxes still in effect at the time prevented many residents from having a say in the decision.

Green said the fate of Vinegar Hill still affects the mindset of African-Americans in Charlottesville and surrounding areas.

“To this day, it is an anger that no one really understands,” she said. “Even if you weren’t there, those memories have been passed down.”

Charlottesville’s Friendship Court Apartments — formerly Garrett Square — emerged from a similar urban renewal effort in the 1960s that cleared most of the Garrett Street neighborhood.

Devin Gentry, a history teacher at AHS, grew up in Garrett Square. He said he wanted his students to understand how choices made in the past have shaped the present.

“When I was their age, my peers didn’t understand that,” Gentry said. “I want my students to learn about the work that has been done to overcome [injustice], and the work we still have to do.”

Gentry said current residential development in Charlottesville is continuing to encroach upon low-income neighborhoods, particularly the Westhaven public housing site near West Main Street.

The teachers finished the day’s program with a lecture at the County Office Building-McIntire by researchers at UVa’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies.

Other activities planned for Reframing the Narrative this year include a workshop with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that supports education about the Holocaust, and a visit to the exhibit on slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier.

Chris Cantone, another AHS history teacher, said he hopes the school division’s revised history curriculum will allow students to do their own research on subjects they are curious about.

“It’s important to look to things that are visible in our community and build lessons around them. But the things that aren’t visible can be an even better story,” Cantone said.

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