Inspired teacher crafts new African American history curriculum

Tony Jones & Karanja A. Ajanaku, Special to The New Tri-State Defender | 8/3/2017, 10:41 a.m.
When Kirby High School opens Monday (August 7) for the 2017-18 school year, a new African American history curriculum inspired ...
A longstanding interest in the old St. Thomas Church building in South Memphis eventually led Kirby High School history teacher Lauren Barksdale to the inspiration that has yielded an African American history curriculum. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

When Kirby High School opens Monday (August 7) for the 2017-18 school year, a new African American history curriculum inspired by the Memphis Heritage Trail will be in place to give students a better sense of their standing in the history of Memphis and the world.

Memphis Heritage Trail (MHT), according to the website that describes it, is a revitalization project focused on an underserved but historically vital section of the city. The footprint for MHT is the nexus of historical African-American culture, with the boundaries being North-Beale Street, South-Crump Blvd., East-Walnut Street and West-Main Street.

Lauren Barksdale, a history instructor at Kirby, is a MHT volunteer. The curriculum is not a MHT creation. It’s simply a fresh approach that Barksdale came up with as she drew upon the inspiration that grew within her as she went about her duties as a MHT volunteer.

The curriculum’s pilot was tested with entering freshman at Kirby High School’s Summer Institute June 6-9.

“There is a need for the kids to understand the legacy of our city because they don’t know,” Barksdale said. “My parents and grandparents taught me about it. The kids need to understand that these places aren’t just there, they’re part of them.”

For grades K-12, the curriculum is broken into four units based on aspects of Memphis heritage and creative devices such as writing, art, graphic design and music. It focuses on figures and events in Memphis history such as Robert Church (the first African-American millionaire in the South) and the Church legacy, the all-black military units who fought during the Civil War (Fort Pickering) and the legacy of Beale Street.

After review and assessment, plans are in the works to have the curriculum available to all Shelby County School teachers this fall. There has been discussion of offering it as a smartphone app under the MHT banner to be launched in conjunction with the 50th commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in Memphis on April 4, 2018.

“We have to make it exciting to learn where they came from,” Barksdale said. “If you know who you are, you will have an indication of where you’re going. We’re almost in a state of emergency in restoring our values.”

Barksdale’s interest in history has deep family roots. She was building on those roots when she was directed to the MHT, whose project manager is Felecia Harris, City of Memphis’ Housing and Community Development manager.

“I was working on a project under the working title ‘The Five.’ One of my key targets was the St. Thomas Church at Lauderdale and Trigg. I was hoping to get an historical marker there. As a child, my father had told me about it because he used to go there, as did a lot of children, to play basketball, and he played in a band there.”

Barksdale reached out to Jim Noble at the Memphis Landmarks Commission and he directed her to Harris because several of the buildings were within the MHT boundaries. She volunteered to work with MHT and folded her project into what they were doing.”