Black History Month: Teaching Historical Triumphs and Tragedies

During Black History Month every February, we honor the contributions African Americans have made to our country’s history, share stories of the African American experience, and teach others about how that experience has shaped our country.

One reason we teach history is to help students learn about how our past informs our present and our future. As historians and people interested in history, we must commit to telling the whole story. We must commit to uncovering stories that have been forgotten, overlooked, or not told at all, and shining light on those stories now with the hope that they not only reach a new audience but also inspire and include our students in the larger story of our country.

An HMH book that you can use to teach middle and high school students about African American history during Black History Month is A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Claire Hartfield, which recently won the Coretta Scott King Author Award. During Black History Month, we have an obligation to explore parts of our history that are difficult to talk about as well as those moments that are uplifting. We must learn to talk about race in America and how it is covered in the press and in books. A Few Red Drops can help you achieve those goals in the classroom.

Hartfield sets the story of the riot firmly within the larger complex story of Chicago and how it evolved during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a tale of immigration from Europe and migration from the Deep South; of stockyards and the meat-packing industry; of trade unions, political corruption, journalism, and racial tension. It is meticulously researched and profusely illustrated with contemporary photographs, newspaper accounts, and other archival documents. It does what the best history books should do: inform us about past events and also resonate with us today, and maybe even compel us to act so as not repeat our past mistakes. 

Hartfield takes her title from the 1916 poem by Carl Sandburg “I Am the People, the Mob” about the everyday people of the past, a line of which she uses as the book’s epigraph: Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.” Carl Sandburg was not only a poet but also a journalist. He covered the riot for The Chicago Daily News, where he had been writing about the poverty and housing shortages and working life in the stockyards as well as daily Chicago life. His newspaper articles were gathered together and published in book form immediately that fall by the brand-new publishing firm of Harcourt, Brace & Howe, one of the companies that now make up HMH.

Having these two books makes for an interesting opportunity to test out the aphorism that journalism is the first draft of history. Hartfield used Sandburg’s book as a source—she provides an extensive bibliography and notes—and he is an eyewitness. Reading them together, we can appreciate the messiness of history and begin to understand how stories get told and repeated, and then possibly fade into obscurity and get resurrected when they can speak to a new situation that’s relevant to today’s world. 

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.