Speaking About the Unspeakable: Developing Tools to Discuss Jim Crow in the Classroom

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture’s vision statement is “to share globally, and with integrity, the human drama of Maryland’s African American experience.” [1] But how do you begin to share when that experience is something as terrible, and indescribable, as lynching? And furthermore, how do you share that experience with children? This question is especially important for museums for which school groups are a target audience.

Together with the Maryland State Department of Education, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is attempting to tackle this tough topic. The two partnered to develop a series of lesson plans discussing the African American experience for a K-12 audience. The curriculum, entitled An African American Journey: A Resource for Learning the History of African Americans in Maryland and the United States, had reached more than 850,000 Maryland school children by 2008 and ties into Common Core Reading and Writing Standards. [2] The lesson plans touch on a wide range of topics and feature primary document resources to spur discussion and engagement.

One lesson plan takes on the subject of lynching and the social response surrounding the violent crime. The lesson begins by defining the term for the students, but from there the developers’ strategy is to talk about much more than the crime itself. The first objective is to give students an understanding of the many structures in place to deny African Americans rights following Emancipation. Then, students work toward analyzing response to the injustices of lynchings and later the actions taken to combat such discrimination.

The lesson instructs teachers to begin by playing the Billie Holiday version of “Strange Fruit,” and asks students to think about the positive and negative imagery, and the songwriter’s motivation. This establishes the idea of lynching for the students, and gets them in the mindset to discuss other reactions via the primary documents.

There are fourteen primary documents in all, which focus on white and black reactions to lynching, but do not describe or show the  horrors of specific acts. The first document is an excerpt from The Cleveland Gazette denouncing lynching in Maryland, and the last a map documenting the crime by state and county from 1900-1931 and prepared by the Research Department of the Tuskegee Institute. The documents allow students to digest difficult, but important, social history without exposing them to anything above what they might be emotionally ready to handle. Throughout their reading, students are asked to use the content of each document to think about their focus question: “What methods did groups employ to challenge the practice of lynching?” [4] In this way, the lesson focuses on solutions and moving forward, and illicits an intellectual response, in addition to an emotional one. The plan also asks students to think about who is writing each document, when it was written, and for what purpose. By posing these questions, students can begin to contextual lynchings as part of a larger system.

The lesson plan also suggests that teachers take the ideas a bit further by asking students to investigate contemporary hate crimes and what is being done to address them. In tying in contemporary issues of prejudice, students can make important connections to the present and gain a greater understanding of the society in which they live in. Once again, by discussing not just the crimes, but also social response, teachers can frame actions of injustice in terms of greater social problems and solutions. This takes a conversation that could otherwise leave students feeling powerless, and turns it into a discussion about how to create change in the future.

The lesson ends with extension activities, one of which involves a visit to the Museum and interaction with an exhibition there. For schools that are able to visit the museum, there are also theme tours that compliment these lesson plans. [5] For classes that cannot visit, the lessons can stand alone and allow the museum to spread its vision further than its institutional walls.



1. Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, “Mission, Vision, Values,” http://www.rflewismuseum.org/about/mission.

2. Reginald F. Lewis Museum, “2008 Annual Report,” http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5300/sc5339/000113/014000/014326/unrestricted/20120137e.pdf.

3. Reginald F. Lewis Museum and Maryland State Education Department, “Historical Investigation: Social Response to Lynching,” http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/NR/rdonlyres/F68E8866-61CB-4AF5-8AE6-F9275A9CEE9C/33057/35_Lynching_06182012.pdf.

4. Ibid.

5. Reginald F. Lewis Museum, “School Guide 2013-2014,” http://rflewismuseum.org/sites/default/files/RFLM_Schoolguide-2013-2014-web.pdf.

One thought on “Speaking About the Unspeakable: Developing Tools to Discuss Jim Crow in the Classroom

  1. I think that focusing on the cultural response to lynching is a great way to present the lesson that victims of lynching were overwhelmingly innocent of the crimes they were accused. During the late 19th and early 20th century, when anti-lynching activism was at its height, many white allies condemned lynching as a horrible crime but still saw victims of lynching as criminals themselves. In other words, the crime was mob rule not murder of an innocent person. Ida B. Wells, Du Bois, and others wrote extensively to dispel this myth and show that lynching was a way for white southerns to retain control of the African American community.

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