Rice seminar introduces HISD teachers to origins of early black life in the Americas

For a week in mid-July, 15 secondary school teachers from the Houston Independent School District gathered at Rice’s Humanities Building for a new seminar on the beginnings and nature of early black life in the Americas. The teachers’ major assignment for the week: create lesson plans addressing critical issues surrounding the topic, most notably the development and articulation of New World slave societies.


Rice Associate Professor of History Alexander Byrd, far right, takes notes as seminar participants present their lesson plans July 18. Photos by Brandon Martin

Titled “Black Humanities Seminar: Origins of Afro-America,” the course was convened by Alexander Byrd ’90, associate professor of history at Rice, and Montra Rogers, director of secondary social studies curriculum at HISD.

“The course is as much a workshop as it is a seminar,” Byrd told the teachers. “Actually, it is probably more of a workshop than a seminar.” He is an expert in Afro-America, especially black life in the Atlantic world and the Jim Crow South, and teaches African-American history and the history of the African diaspora.

“The most important work before us is tasks best undertaken in concert: to mull over which aspects concerning the origins of Afro-America are most important to teach secondary school students; to develop powerful approaches for relating that material; and to develop, as well, ways to use the history of the origins of Afro-America to illuminate parts of the secondary school curriculum beyond social studies and beyond the humanities, to say nothing of the students’ larger education and development,” Byrd said.

To guide the workshop’s discussions and work, Byrd and Rogers had the teachers read three books: “The Diary of Antera Duke: An 18th-Century African Slave Trader” by Stephen Behrendt, A.J.H. Latham and David Northrup; “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” by Saidiya Hartman; and “The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706” by John Thornton.

“Opportunities such as the Black Humanities Seminar allow teachers to develop professionally in ways that both increase their content knowledge and facilitate professional learning communities that extend beyond the walls of individual campuses; a districtwide social-studies community is able to grow and develop,” Rogers said.

The teachers created lesson plans based on primary sources for the period under study, with many drawing on documents related to 18th-century British parliamentary inquiries into the slave trade but also incorporating modern-day sources.

“The materials support the focused development of an important skill in early African-American history and in African-American history in general: the necessity of culling and interpreting black voices and perspectives from material not necessarily generated by black people themselves,” Byrd said.


Maat Andrews, an English teacher at Northside High School, discusses her lesson plan.

Maat Andrews, an English teacher at Northside High School (formerly Jefferson Davis High School), created a lesson plan centered around kidnapping and included stories and images of captivity ranging from life on a packed slave ship to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in the 1970s. “I focused on a literary component that the students can actually apply,” Andrews said. “Literature is meant to paint the details of the broad strokes of history and to give students a bird’s-eye view of what human beings lived and felt during certain times and situations. So the English approach to history is slightly different than the historians’. This discipline wants to excite student imagination and creativity while teaching reading and writing skills.”

Byrd said he and Rogers intend to organize another iteration of the seminar next year.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.