Seminar introduces HISD teachers, incoming Rice students to Jim Crow era and its legacy

A group of 16 secondary school teachers and administrators from Houston-area schools and six incoming Houston-area Rice students gathered in a classroom at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative in late July for a lecture on the “New Negro Renaissance” of the 1920s. Sometimes called the Harlem Renaissance, the era was defined by a fully nationwide uptick in black cultural production that saw the rise of jazz, the launch of the literary careers of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, and a new sense of black identity and pride.

Rice alumna Nia Crosley ’17, a teacher at Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch Independent School District, listens to a presentation given by Alexander Byrd, associate professor of history at Rice and co-convener of the Black Humanities Seminar. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Rice alumna Nia Crosley ’17, a teacher at Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch Independent School District, listens to a presentation given by Alexander Byrd, associate professor of history at Rice and co-convener of the Black Humanities Seminar. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The lecture, given by Alexander Byrd ’90, associate professor of history at Rice, was part of the weeklong Black Humanities Seminar, an initiative convened by Byrd and Montra Rogers, director of secondary social studies curriculum for the Houston Independent School District.

The first seminar — mainly for HISD educators and designed as an opportunity for professional development — was held last year and focused on the beginnings and nature of early black life in the Americas. This year’s seminar had a stream for teachers, titled “Jim Crow America,” and another for incoming Rice students, titled “Scholarship and Jim Crow America: Nadir and Now.”

Byrd said both streams explored issues related to black life in the Jim Crow United States, with the teachers more focused on content and pedagogy, and the incoming students more focused on the place of scholarship in historical and contemporary social justice movements, though with plenty of exchange between the two groups.

Byrd explained that under Jim Crow law and custom, black Americans were relegated to subordinate status for decades. These laws and practices enforced racial segregation and white supremacy in the American South, but also in the North and West. Jim Crow discrimination had its origins in the end of Reconstruction (following the Civil War), was largely perfected, ironically, during the so-called Progressive Era of American history (from the late 19th century to the first decades of the 20th) and only began to be undone by the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond, Byrd said.

Segregation in schools and in public facilities, ridicule of black society and culture, restrictions on black voting, extrajudicial killings and violence against African-Americans who challenged their second-class citizenship were all foundational to the era, he said. Yet the period was also a time of profound internal development, institutional growth, interracial coalition building and anti-racist struggle among black Americans. The National Association of Colored Women, the NAACP, the National Urban League and numerous black fraternal organizations, for instance, all trace their origins to the period.

“The idea behind the … stream that involves incoming Rice students is, ‘How do you provide a space for … students who are interested in the black humanities and/or interested in social justice activities and how to connect their social justice work with the work of a university? And would it be possible to create a space for those people to investigate important questions before school starts, to build networks with one another … that could be valuable for the rest of their career?” Byrd said.

“The student stream is as focused on modern-day America as it is focused on the past,” he said. “(It’s focused on) the question of state violence and policing, what are the problems around policing and community life in the United States and how do we bridge the gap between law enforcement and citizens, especially minority citizens? That’s the most pressing contemporary problem at the heart of the student stream. It’s implicit in the educator stream; it’s explicit in the student stream.”

As part of the seminar, the incoming students read “To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells” by Mia Bay and “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” by Paul Butler. A key assignment entailed writing and defending two prospective course plans (12 courses spread over four years) that speak to issues of race and justice explored during the seminar. The students drew one plan from the Rice catalog and a second plan from the catalog of another university.

Cultivating public intellectuals

“For me, it was really fascinating learning about Ida B. Wells, who was an anti-lynching crusader,” said Tanvi Jadhav, a graduate of Tompkins High School in Katy. “It was really interesting to learn about how the tactics that she used then to try to work for more civil rights for African-Americans are things that people still use today. And … the problems she faced are really similar to the problems that people face today.”

Quinten Flores, a teacher at Gregory-Lincoln Educational Center in the Houston Independent School District, was one of 16 educators who participated in the seminar.

The teachers’ major assignment for the week: Create lesson plans that incorporate inquiry-based learning and critical issues surrounding the topic.

Brandon Brewton, recently a history teacher at Yolanda Black Navarro Middle School and now a teacher development specialist with HISD, participated in the seminar for the second time. “Being a part of it last summer really opened my eyes to a lot of things that I didn’t even know and realized that I didn’t know, and it exposed me to other ways of thinking and being more in tune and in touch with history and how it connects to today,” Brewton said. “So I had to come back and take it again this year.”

Rogers underscored the seminar’s importance in advancing teachers’ content knowledge as well as facilitating professional learning communities. “I cannot even begin to tell you how valuable this is for our teachers,” she said. “They’re able to gain a great deal of historical knowledge that they oftentimes lack, from a noted professor. Even more so, it makes them feel like a professional. We like to cultivate public intellectuals, because once upon a time, teachers were indeed your public intellectuals. They would go to symposiums and seminars … to learn, and this actually gives them that platform to do that.”

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

To view a Rice News video about the seminar, go to https://youtu.be/BQAa_8wvJ3k.

About Jeff Falk

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