Final Project Update: Module 7

I’m feeling really good about the state of my project. The goals and activities are more defined than ever. My project is tentatively titled “Telling the Stories of Lynching Victims” and walks users through the process of researching specific lynching cases and sharing their research with others. Upon completion of the module, users should be able to utilize the Lynching in Texas database (or any other lynching database) to select a case that they can then research in-depth. The module itself will utilize the case of Juan Tobar as an example for users to follow along with; I’ve selected this case because, unlike the Florencio Garcia case that my main website is based on, the entry on Juan Tobar in the LiT database includes both text and image sources. Since the intended audience for my “Last Lynching of Cameron County” project was adults with a connection to the geographical region and my final project for this course is connected to that project, my intended audience for my final project this semester is the same as my project for last semester.

Since my last update, I’ve further refined my outline and I think I’ve finalized the activities in my module:

  • 1: Select a Story
  • 2: Evaluate Sources
    • This activity will have 2 sub-activities: one that focuses on images and one that focuses on newspapers.
  • 3: Form a Research Question
    • I know it’s possible to form a research question first and then locate sources, but I think for people who aren’t as familiar with “doing” history, starting with sources first then generating research questions is a good way to ease them into the process.
  • 4: Gather More Information
  • 4: Share Your Findings

To continue moving forward, I need to begin building out these activities. Each activity has its own page and some basic text outlining the activity, but I need to start adding in screenshots and go into more detail about the steps of each activity.

Final Project Update

The concept of my final project has changed considerably since the beginning of the course. I’ve shifted the focus of my project from the lynching of Florencio Garcia to a different lynching case. I’ve also added the overarching goal of encouraging users to conduct on their own investigation into under-researched lynching cases. My project will point users towards a database that focuses on lynchings in Texas, but the research skills that I will focus on my project can be applied to any lynching in the United States.

Unfortunately, because the finalization of my project concept is happening this late in the game, I haven’t made much visible progress. Because of the relation to my digital history project in HIST 694, I know that the format I will be utilizing for my final project is Omeka. I’ve created some pages and a rough outline on my site towards this goal. My next steps will be to establish the order of activities and develop the pages a bit more.

As for the materials in this week’s module, I think I explored every project and student interview I could get my hands on — I need all the help I can get! I’ve learned just how diverse digital educational resources can be:  VR experiences, teacher’s guides, library guides, and course syallabi. I’m encouraged by this wide range and I know that there is much for me to learn from these projects.

Film & Digital Story Telling: Teaching & Learning History

Films are great entry points for students of history to exercise basic historical thinking skills. The combination of audio, video, and narrative opens up opportunities to individuals whose learning styles fall outside the traditional “lecture-read-write” model of history education. One example that comes to mind are the films Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), two films that examine the American and Japanese perspectives in the Battle of Iwo Jima. These two films (a result of one project) would be a great way to broach the subject of multiple perspectives and interpretations in historical thinking.

Educators could also use this two-film technique to teach concepts about historical context. What are the differences between A Woman Called Moses (a TV mini-series released in 1978) and Harriet (2019) in how they portray Harriet Tubman and the world in which she lived? What do these films tell us more about: Tubman’s world or the era in which these projects were produced?

I really enjoyed this week’s readings on scholarly digital storytelling, and while there are still some aspects of the concept that I don’t fully understand, I am eager to learn more. I was fascinated by the 5-photo activity. The desire to create or find narratives in loosely or unrelated data sets is embedded into our DNA. As historians, it’s something we must constantly be aware of and keep a firm grasp on. When used correctly, the narrative instinct can allow historians to craft stories that are broadly accessible and engaging. When used incorrectly, the narrative instinct can cause students of history to jump to conclusions.

The concept of DST actually reminded me of a viral internet moment from a few years ago. In 2017, the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme rose to popularity. The stock photo image displayed a man walking down a street with his significant other, while checking out a different woman. The popularity of the initial image was soon followed up with other stock photos with what appeared to be the three same individuals, but in different scenarios: the man proposing to his significant other, the two women meeting each other, etc. Soon online posters were assembling these photos to tell the “Full Story of the Distracted Boyfriend Meme”. Of course, these stories that were being compiled were just that — stories. This occurrence would be a wonderful event for history students to consider, both the photos themselves, and the fact that so many people were crafting these intricate narratives based only on images.

With this activity, students could be encouraged to discuss the following questions:

  • How do we “know” the man and the woman are in a relationship?
  • How do we “know” the man is checking out another woman?
  • How do we “know” the girlfriend is feeling upset?
  • Do we actually know these things?

Then, the educator could challenge the students to rearrange (and potentially omit) the photos in the photoset to create a narrative different from the established story. In this way, students would learn skills that are essential to doing history — understanding how an argument is crafted, breaking it down into its most basic elements, and using these elements to craft a new argument.

Film Review: The Other Side of Eden

The Other Side of Eden: Stories of a Virginia Lynching. 2018. Produced by Tom Davenport with Shawn Nichols and Jim Hall. A Folkstreams Production: https://www.folkstreams.net/films/other-side-of-eden. Based in part on The Last Lynching of Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain, by Jim Hall.

This documentary film examines the abduction and sexual assault of Mamie Baxley by Shedrick Thompson on July 17, 1932 and the subsequent lynching of Shedrick. Through interviews with family members, researchers, and local community members, The Other Side of Eden depicts the complexities of racialized violence, the far-reaching impacts of such acts, and the discrimination Black people faced in the early 20th century. The film does fall short in a few regards: it fails to thoroughly investigate the sexual dynamic between a white man and his Black female employee and reinforces the idea that lynchings of Black men occurred primarily because of rape allegations. On the whole however, this film is a valuable resource for educators seeking to begin or continue discussions about lynching.

Themes

Discrimination Against Black People in the Early 20th Century

At the heart of this film is a story about a Black man (Shedrick Thompson, also known as Shed) who is lynched after being accused of invading the home of Henry Baxley Sr. (a white man), kidnapping Henry’s white wife (Mamie Baxley), and raping her. “He committed a malicious crime,” said Barbara Herrell, a white woman whose family lived close to the Thompsons at the time of the lynching. “But he still deserved a trial by jury.” Of course, Shed was denied this right — his body was found hanging from a tree two months after his invasion of the Baxley home, called Edenhurst. Upon discovery, his death was deemed a suicide and his body was promptly burned.

There are, however, other storylines in this film that support this theme. When Shed’s sister, Mary Thompson, falls ill with appendicitis, she is rushed to the closest hospital — a hospital for whites; there Mary is denied medical treatment and as a result, she dies (see 25:43 – 26:30). It’s revealed that Henry Baxley Sr. fathered a child with his Black cook and produced a daughter named Mamie Wilkens (named after Henry’s white wife). While Henry’s white son, Henry Baxley Jr., grew up living with both his parents, Mamie Wilkens grew up in an orphanage across the street from the Baxley home. Finally, the treatment Shed’s family receives after he is accused of the crime at Edenhurst is less than ideal: Shed’s wife, step-son, and brother are arrested after he disappears into the mountains. When Shed’s body is found, his decapitated head is delivered to the Thompson’s front porch before being placed underneath the steps of the Fauquier courthouse — a physical representation of Black’s people lowly status in the eyes of the justice system at the time.

Community Effects of Lynching

The events surrounding a lynching can have far-reaching, inter-generational impacts on a community. The first 20 minutes of The Other Side of Eden primarily portray the events surrounding the Edenhurst assault and lynching primarily from the perspective of the white community by interviewing Mamie Baxley’s son (Henry Jr.) and other people familiar with her story. Henry discusses powerful memories, like his mother’s deathbed revelation, and his family’s move from Edenhurst to The Cove after the attack on his mother. Gradually, the documentary shifts to other perspectives: Shed’s relatives and other members of the Black community, people related to members of the posse that lynched Shed, and a descendant of a sheriff who tried to halt the burning of Shed’s heavily decomposed body. The last few minutes of the film (53:38 – 58:00) do an excellent job of displaying the wide range of people who were impacted by the events of July 17, 1932.

The people directly connected to these events were impacted enough to hold tight to their memories and share them with their direct descendants and in some cases, their grandchildren. The inheritors of these stories in turn preserved them and deemed them significant enough to be shared on a wider platform, The Other Side of Eden. The Edenhurst events clearly impacted many people in Fauquier County for many years after 1932.

Historical Shortcomings

This film focuses on a lynching that is conducted because of an alleged rape of a white woman by a Black man. While it’s true that the protection of white womanhood was the primary justification provided by lynching supporters, this film fails to include an important counter-narrative: antilynching activists often referenced data that indicated that most lynchings of Black men had nothing to do with the rape of a white woman (other motivations included theft, murder, resisting arrest, arson, etc.). Failing to include this information is dangerous: viewers of this film could walk away with the belief that all lynchings of Black man were connected to rape allegations, which is simply untrue.

Antilynching activists also pointed out the discrepancy between the claim that white women were at high risk of being raped by Black men and the fact that white men were virtually never held accountable for the rape of Black women. There is a small reference to this in the film: it’s established that Henry Sr. fathered a daughter with his Black cook, Mattie Wilkens. But the relationship between Mamie Wilkens’ parents goes unexamined. Did Henry Sr. violently rape Mattie in a manner similar to how Shed raped Henry Sr.’s wife? What impact did Henry Sr.’s role as Mattie’s boss play in their sexual encounter? The film spends a considerable time examining the violent, non-consensual encounter that Henry Sr.’s wife was a victim of, but spends no time asking if Henry Sr. was himself a perpetrator of a similar crime. In this way, it reinforces the idea that Black men were the only people capable of committing heinous sexual crimes.

Teaching & Learning

I think this film is an excellent resource to use in any curriculum concerning lynching. It does an outstanding job of exhibiting the complexities of a lynching event and the impacts that events surrounding a lynching can have at the individual and community level. It also touches on the subjects of vigilante justice, discrimination against Black people, and the protection of white womanhood. As long as consumption of the film is done in an educational context and is guided by instructors who can take into account the historical shortcomings listed above, many benefits can be reaped from this viewing experience.

Prior to watching the film, learners should be encouraged to “source the source” and ask the kinds of questions that would normally be asked of a piece of historical scholarship:

  • Who produced/directed/funded this?
  • What other works have the people on this project produced?
  • Why was this film created?

Immediately after screening the film, viewers should reflect on the following questions:

    • What perspectives were presented and how did they differ from each other? What perspectives were not presented?
    • What sources did the filmmakers draw on and how credible are they? What perspectives were these sources depicting?
    • How do you feel after watching this film?
    • In your opinion, who is the victim of this film? Who is the antagonist? How does the film portray these people?

 

Final Project Ideas #3: HIST 689

I’d like for one of the activities in my project to focus on an image from the Robert Runyon Photograph collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, “Texas Rangers with dead suspected Mexican Bandits.” I’d also like to utilize a video created by C-SPAN in 2014, “History of the Texas Rangers” that features a cropped version of the Runyon photo. I chose this image because it closely relates to my topic — the lynching of Florencio Garcia. While the photo does not depict Garcia, it does address the topic of racialized violence against Mexicans by Texas Rangers. It’s almost like the photo can be analyzed from two different perspectives: the photo as it was used in 2014 and the photo in its original, uncropped state. I plan on revealing information to the user in small fragments — first the photo as it was used in the 2014 video (the bottom half containing the dead bodies cropped out), then revealing more contextual information about the photo and photographer, ending with a full reveal of the original photo.

TX Rangers with dead suspected Mexican Bandits. The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, RUN00097, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. Via flickr.

I’m also aware of the existence of other photos in the Runyon collection that I would like to draw on — they are companion images to the image in question and would aid in the understanding of the Texas Ranger photo. However, I have not been able to locate digital versions of these companion photos, so I will need to continue searching or adjust my project accordingly. I know my original source material (Joint Committee Testimony) also contains information about the Runyon photographs so I need to locate that as well. For other parts of my project I need to dive deeper into the source material to further pull out the “German propaganda” thread I’ve seen in passing and the connection with Ranger violence against Mexicans.

 

Final Project Ideas Revisited: HIST 689

I think the ability for users of my project to examine a past event from different perspectives will benefit greatly from a digital platform. Specifically, I’d like to spotlight articles about the same topics/events from two different types of newspapers: Spanish-language papers and English-language papers. One of my other main sources, a collection of testimonies from “opposing” sides, could also be used to accomplish this task, but I’m not quite sure yet how the user experience with these testimonies could  be improved with digital tools.

Overall, I’ve been feeling really challenged by the task of creating a digital learning opportunity. My experiences with memorable history learning experiences have not had much in common with the seriousness of the content at the center of my proposed project. I’m wondering if some topics in history aren’t well suited for digital educational experiences, and if so, if my topic is one of them. I think I need to examine existing digital projects that are similar in content to my proposed project — perhaps that will help me better understand how digital tools can be utilized to create a learning experience about a specific lynching.

The History of History Teaching

What elements of historical thinking have remained at the heart of history teaching over the decades?

The major thread in the approach to teaching history over the past 100 years has been the emphasis on historical content over procedural skill. Despite research to the contrary (see Charles Homer Haskins’ 1906 report as mentioned in T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age), “the recitation of authoritative knowledge continued to be the goal of a coverage-oriented history teaching that retained its dominance through the 20th century and persists today (“Measuring College Learning In History” by Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, pg. 46).”

From the 1980s onwards, the prioritization of rote memorization was accompanied by a mission to evaluate students on their ability to absorb information via standardized assessments. Since then educators at all levels of K-12 history education have felt pressured to “teach to the test.” These tests, meanwhile are designed to differentiate students from one another. Other possible measures of success in history — knowledge of widely accepted basic historical events and people (the Founding Fathers, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.), and critical thinking skills necessary to the production and understanding of history — are not taken into consideration in standardized tests. Assessments meant to evaluate American students’ grasp of history instead measure students’ inability to retain a large volume of loosely connected (often obscure) details of the past.  The standards set by these tests can be unrealistically high. The history of history teaching is also characterized by the overarching mission of creating engaged citizens unified through a virtuous American identity. This identity is meant to uphold  unchanging national triumphs and accomplishments. The past is believed to be fact and final, with no need for reexamination and reinterpretation.

Equally important to the elements that have been at the center of historical teaching over the past century are those elements that have been absent from the process. The belief that history is unchanging has left little room for the incorporation of pushback against the established historical narrative. Students are not encouraged to ask critical questions of the information they are presented with. Also absent is the element of hands-on work: as Kyle Ward writes in History in the Making, “science courses…math, physical education, band, choir, and industrial arts all have the opportunity to…be active and create things, history on the other hand, tends to be viewed as being more stagnant (xix).” This approach to teaching history over the years has made it one of the only (if not the only) subjects that places creative aspects within the field far out of reach of the beginner. Finally, the element of viewing the past through the lens of multiple perspectives has been noticeably absent from the process of basic history education.

History has been taught this way for many years and, unfortunately, shows no sign of changing any time soon. I am sad to report that my recent experiences in elementary classrooms are in line with the less-than exemplary elements listed here. Too often, teachers feel obligated to overwhelm students with content in an attempt to achieve benchmark scores for standardized tests.

Final Project Ideas: HIST 689

At this point, my idea for my final project would tie in with my digital public history project from HIST 694: The Last Lynching of Cameron County, Texas. The primary sources included in the website I created are primarily newspaper articles and testimony from a joint committee investigation by the Texas House and Senate. Because of the nature of the topic, my audience would not be K-12 students, but rather adults who have a connection to the geographical area where the lynching occurred. My overarching goal is to stimulate engagement with and critical reading of the sources featured on the website.

Thinking About Historical Thinking

This week’s materials on the way people engage with history were very enlightening. At this point in my life, I’d like to think that I have a solid grasp on the most fundamental tools in a historian’s toolbox: questioning past human choices, trying to understand these choices in the context that they originated in, and critically engaging with sources. However, the prevalence with which members of the American public were unable to engage with basic historical concepts left me so distressed that I was left wondering about the competency of my own historical thinking skills! This topic gets especially complicated when seen from the perspective of public history. Putting this all together, I had a few questions that I hope to discuss with others as we move forward in this course:

  • If audiences come to a public history project without basic historical thinking strategies, is it the history project’s responsibility to take this into account? Or is it the users’ responsibility to learn those strategies elsewhere if they are unable to properly engage with the project?
  • Should the creators of a public history project aim to develop and grow the historical thinking strategies of the project’s users in addition to the hyper-specific goal of educating the users on the topic at hand?
    • If the answer to this question is yes: what’s the dynamic between these two goals? Are they in opposition? Which one takes precedence?

I think in an ideal world (perhaps this is just my ideal world), users would come to a public history project — museum, monument, digital public history experience — with basic concepts on reading, evaluation, and critical thinking about history already developed. This kind of wish seems especially far-fetched when you consider how many consumers of history projects are K-12 students. For background, the historical topics that I’ve been working on over the past year deal with graphic racialized violence — not exactly the kind of material that would be suitable for a young and beginner history student. With this in mind, I don’t think it’s that unreasonable for me to hope and expect that the users who are engaging with my digital history projects about lynching have some basic historical thinking strategies. Whether or not they do is a different matter.

Regardless, it’s in everyone’s best interest if creators of history projects take on the mantle of teaching users how to engage with historical content. If you write a book in French, but your target audience is not fluent in the language, all of your hard work is for naught; in order to engage users, you must first teach them the language. Maybe they took French in high school and college, but received substandard instruction. The fact that users are unprepared to interact with your project is not your fault, but it is your problem.

Is it possible that the target audience for your project is equipped with the basic strategies necessary to engage with historical concepts? The only way to know is through audience research. If audience research shows that most potential users do have the necessary tools — great! No need to spend precious project resources teaching people something they already know. For this reason, it’s vital that specific audience groups for projects are determined at the earliest stages and that thorough research is conducted on potential users. Evaluation of historical thinking strategies should be a central component of initial audience research and the project should be modified according to these findings.

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