Teaching Black History in New Hampshire Schools

Sep 3, 2019

Last fall, a Dover High School teacher was placed on leave after a class assignment on the Reconstruction Period led to students singing about the Ku Klux Klan to the tune of Jingle Bells.

The incident led to discussions within the Dover School District and other local school communities about better equipping teachers on how they talk about the histories of persons of color in their classrooms.

And as students begin a new school year, typical New Hampshire classrooms will be filled with a majority of white students taught by mostly white teachers.

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with JerriAnne Boggis, the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, about how the nonprofit is creating curricula on black history for New Hampshire teachers.

Boggis says there is so much more to the history of black people in New Hampshire than what is currently taught in schools.

"The mythology is New Hampshire is a really white state, which implies that there's no grounding, no roots, no long 400-year history of blacks in the state," Boggis said.

JerriAnne Boggis, Executive Director of the Black Heritage Trail of N.H.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire has established tours of historical sites across the state. The nonprofit has worked to bring awareness and appreciation to New Hampshire's African-American history.

One of its goals is to create curricula for teachers on black history within their own local region. So far, it's partnered with the University of New Hampshire and a handful of teachers in Portsmouth to come up with lesson plans that tell the stories of black people who lived in their city.

Boggis says this shows students that African-Americans weren't only fighting for representation and equality in the South, but also here in New Hampshire.

"Then you have to rethink what it is you know about the place that you live," Boggis says. "You see the connections between what happened then and maybe what's going on now."

Part of the curricula involves hands-on activities in the classroom and at sites along the Black Heritage Trail. Boggis emphasizes the importance of students being able to get out and see these places.

"That child's imagination can go in all these places," Boggis said. "It makes more of an impact."

JerriAnne Boggis at the Portsmouth African Burying Ground on Chestnut Street, between State and Court streets.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Boggis says teachers should be using stories of real people who lived in their local region to give students a better understanding of what it was like to be a black person at that time.

"We're educating our new set of scholars, our young minds, in a different way, in a more honest and truthful way," Boggis said. "In doing so, we decrease that anxiety over racial disparities."

Lesson plans can include stories of figures like Harriet Wilson or Richard Potter. Wilson was from Milford, New Hampshire, and she was the first black woman to publish a novel. Potter was from Andover and he traveled all over the country performing as a magician.

"So all of a sudden, you start to see people for the stories, their activities, what they've added to the culture, and not these stereotypical images of what blackness is or what an enslaved person is," Boggis said. "We really start looking at accomplishments. We're judging them by their character, not by the color of their skin."