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Wash U offers Black studies workshop to teach educators about St. Louis' Black history

The Greenwood Cemetery on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Hillsdale.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Burial plots at the Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale in June. Summer institute participants will visit the cemetery this week to learn more about its rich Black history.

The African and African American Studies department at Washington University is offering a summer institute program that teaches regional Black history to high school educators to help them integrate lessons on Black culture, history and the arts into their curriculum.

Twelve teachers from across the region beginning today will learn about slavery in St. Louis, race and medicine, St. Louis’ Black music scene, Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and local Black institutions. Participants also can visit with curators of the university’s Black special collections library to find local archival material for future lessons.

Educators have struggled to teach African American history, but researchers must take the knowledge they possess and disseminate it, said Shanti Parikh, Washington University’s African and African American Studies department chair.

“St. Louis and Missouri play such an important role in the history of America, and particularly African Americans,” Parikh said.

The summer institute aims to deepen participants' knowledge of Black history and support them with instruction for teaching the Advanced Placement course on African American Studies.

The growing movement to ban literature written by Black authors and controversy around the AP African American Studies curriculum presents the right time to implement the summer Black studies program, Parikh said.

Participants come from high schools in St. Louis and St. Louis County, where they teach history, Spanish, law, government or the arts.

Native St. Louisan Sommer Harris did not learn much about the city's rich Black history while in grade school. Now the middle and high school dance teacher wants to incorporate new lessons she will learn from the summer workshop into her Grand Center Arts Academy dance students curriculum.

“It will help me be able to share more information with them … and just [let] them be able to know where they can seek out the history in addition to what they get from school, because we have to educate ourselves,” Harris said.

She has been teaching dance for seven years at the north St. Louis academy. Harris said because she graduated from a Black university, students regularly ask her questions about historically Black colleges and universities, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Black art and culture.

Harris already incorporates dance history lessons on famed Black dancers from the St. Louis region such as Katherine Dunham. She plans to learn more about Black St. Louisans in history, science, entertainment and education in the summer program to help inspire her students.

“A lot of things can motivate our young people, if they're exposed to it … [they] can find out that we have so much history here,” Harris said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.