Integrating the Baltimore Riot into a Civil War History Class, An Improvised Lesson

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This past week was a tumultuous week in the Baltimore – Washington area. What began as an ordinary week became an extraordinary and historical event. As an adjunct lecturer at the University of Maryland University College, my current course on the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction is taught about twenty minutes south of Baltimore, and many of my students either live or work in the city. Not knowing how people were personally affected by the incident, I chose to scrap my intended lesson plan in favor of a new plan linking the incident in Baltimore with the riots of the Civil War. This improvised lesson proved to provide a powerful conversation on the social context of riots and bias in historical resources.

As the students trickled into class on Tuesday, we began to informally discuss the riot. Students commented on what happened. Maryland government and other businesses closed many offices on Tuesday, so the most immediate observation for many students was how light the traffic was during the afternoon rush hour.

 

Image #: 36434158    Baltimore firefighters battle a three-alarm fire at Gay and Chester Streets on Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. It was unclear whether it was related to ongoing riots. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)      Baltimore Sun/ TNS /LANDOV
Image #: 36434158 Baltimore firefighters battle a three-alarm fire at Gay and Chester Streets on Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. It was unclear whether it was related to ongoing riots. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS) Baltimore Sun/ TNS /LANDOV

One student was directly affected by the riot. She lives a block or two from where most of the activity occurred. Apparently, she was so close that when the fires started Monday night smoke was coming into her home. She described her street as a small oasis in West Baltimore where the neighbors interact and care for each other. Early Tuesday morning, she was on the street with her neighbors as they all pondered what happened next, and some worked to protect the businesses and as well as this small community. Her life has been altered by the events on Monday. She regularly shops at Mondawmin Mall and knew the locations of the businesses that were looted and burned. Although on Tuesday night, I would wager the depth of the impact of the Baltimore events on her personal life had not yet sunk in. Inevitably, one of the students asked “Dr. Trent, what do you think?” I was honest with my students that my opinion was still forming, but my knowledge of history has me wondering what were the forces/ deeper currents and possible other forces that were influencing or directing the group. As a historian, I find solace in history, so it was at this point I formally launched into the lesson.

The first part of the lesson was a collective discussion on what happened, why it happened, and the media coverage. The first exercise juxtaposed the media descriptions of the Kentucky fans after they lost in the NCAA basketball tournament and the Baltimore event. Initially the class described what the happened in both locations. Here’s what they put together:

Kentucky Baltimore
Looted Looted
Burned Burned
Raped Over 100 arrested
Over 200 arrested

 

The students then created a list describing the participants of both events.

Kentucky Baltimore
Fans Thugs
Drunk Rioters
Revelers Protesters

 

The students were asked to describe the differences in these two groups, and ultimately they agreed that by looking at the activities of the two groups there was very little difference. However, because one was white and the other was black how they were described by the media was very different. It was at this point I launched into my explanation of bias. Although the activities were the same, dismissive tone of the media regarding the Kentucky fans and the demeaning tone toward the Baltimoreans was evidence of some sort of bias.

I furthered my lesson on bias through the use of  photos from the Saturday incident at Camden yards to Monday’s events. However, my challenge in creating the class PowerPoint was that as of Tuesday morning, I could not find photos of some of the more positive aspects of the Monday’s event like the numerous community activists who were on the streets trying to talk down the rioters. The national media was not highlighting the more positive stories like the local media. WTOP radio reporter, Mike Murillo reported on a group of men who talked a young man out of throwing two huge blocks of asphalt at the police, or the Vietnam veteran who was out on the street trying to assist the situation. All of these stories are an alternative to the national narrative on the incident. The challenge for the students was that in the own research they had to analyze their primary sources for biases. The media coverage of the Baltimore incident was evidence that obtaining information from one or two sources will present a skewed picture of an event.

The next part of the lesson focused on two previous riots in Baltimore’s history. The 1968 riot was part of a larger national trend in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Baltimore_April1968

The second riot was the Pratt Street Riot in 1861. The Pratt Street Riot occurred five days after the attack on Fort Sumter, and was the city’s response to the presence of the Union army which was on its way to Washington to protect the capitol.

Pratt STreet riotapril1861

I then asked the students to work in groups and examine the New York City draft riots and the Richmond Bread riot. The students had to answer the following questions:

  1. Who was involved?
  2. What exactly did they do?
  3. Who or what was damaged?
  4. What changed because of the events?

As we discussed in class each group’s answer to the questions, issues of frustration and social oppression were raised. While no one condoned rioting, I think that the students were able to see that New York in 1863, Baltimore in 1861 and 2015 were part of a larger social context.

This lesson was an attempt to link the past to the present, to place the reality of students’ lives in the themes and trends of American history. I cannot pretend that this lesson answered all of my students’ questions on rioting or even altered their opinion on the actions of some people in Baltimore. I do think that it made them aware that these violent demonstrations cannot occur without outward forces directly and deliberately acting on a community. The lesson also demonstrated that rioting is not just a “black thing.” It is part of a larger experience and various communities in the United States have practiced this form of communication.

Overall I would assess the lesson as being successful. The incidents of the week were unexpected, and the subsequent class discussion was a necessary tangent. The history classroom is more than place to engage students with the past, but also to invoke a connection with their daily reality. As society challenges the relevance of humanities education, it is instances like Baltimore which provide humanities scholars a tangible opportunity to demonstrate to a broad audience our continued significance.

I know it is the end of the semester, but how have you used the events of Baltimore your classroom? What are some possibilities for future lessons or interdisciplinary approaches? Comment below or tweet me @NoelleTrentPhD

 

 

 

 

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Noelle Trent

Noelle Trent is the Director of Interpretation, Collections & Education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. She holds a doctorate in American history for Howard University, and is currently expanding her dissertation Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism into a book. Follow her on Twitter @NoelleTrentPhD.

Comments on “Integrating the Baltimore Riot into a Civil War History Class, An Improvised Lesson

  • Thank you for this thoughtful piece. You did a fantastic job of helping your students connect contemporary events to historical patterns!

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