Pulitzer Center Update

St. Louis Students Investigate the History of Race in America

Bulletin board created by University City High School students during their investigation of issues explored by The 1619 Project. Photo by Christina Sneed. St. Louis, 2020.

Bulletin board created by University City High School students during their investigation of issues explored by The 1619 Project. Photo by Christina Sneed. St. Louis, 2020.

Christina Sneed, AP English Language and Composition teacher at University City High School, began her class’s work with The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project last semester with a simple question. She asked her students when the last time they had a meaningful conversation about race was, and many couldn’t answer. From there, her students used the special issue of the magazine, which asks readers to re-frame the United States’ foundational date from 1776 to 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived on what would become the U.S. The Pulitzer Center has created curricular resources to accompany the magazine in classrooms that educators across the country have used to guide students as they deliberately center the contributions of Black Americans to the development of American society and life. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine staff writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in commentary for her introductory essay to the project, was scheduled to appear at a multi-school event hosted by University City High School in April. Dozens of schools in and around St. Louis whose students had used the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project curricular resources to study the project were slated to attend. The event was postponed due to COVID-19, but Sneed’s students have continued with their independent investigations into the roles that Black people and race issues have played in forming their American realities well into the summertime. (University City High School and the Pulitzer Center are looking to the fall to host similar events virtually, and we welcome any educators who would like to participate to contact us at education@pulitzercenter.org.)

“We started working by talking about race and asking questions about what their understanding of race is,” Sneed said. “Is it important to teach kids about race? Should it be taught? If so, whose responsibility is it?”

Christina Sneed's high school English Language Arts students who undertook independent research projects following their study of The 1619 Project. Image courtesy of Christina Sneed. St. Louis, 2020.

Christina Sneed's high school English Language Arts students who undertook independent research projects following their study of The 1619 Project. Image courtesy of Christina Sneed. St. Louis, 2020.

The answer from her students was a resounding yes. After some discussion about how they had learned about race and race issues previously in school, students listened to “1619,” a special series featured on The New York Times’s podcast The Daily, and looked to other media to explore the role of race in American history and society. One work was Norman Rockwell’s famous 1964 painting, “The Problems We All Live With,” which depicts Ruby Bridges’ historic walk into a formerly all-white elementary school in Louisiana, flanked by US marshals. 

Next, Sneed introduced The 1619 Project with a reading and discussion of Hannah-Jones’s framing essay using the Pulitzer Center Education’s lesson plan to accompany their reading.  From there the question that Sneed asked her students to keep in mind was, “Who gets to write history?”

“[My students] were flabbergasted that so much of what the project discussed they had never heard of,” she said. “They felt betrayed by the ways they were taught.”

 From there, her students chose a topic that relates to the project's idea of “other” people whose stories are often left out of history books. “I really wanted them to be able to reflect and talk about it and process all that they were exposed to,” Sneed said. “I didn’t want them to feel like I was pushing a narrative. I wanted to allow them to come up with their own conclusions.”

Some students wrote essays or other reflections and others recorded podcasts or embarked on research projects. For example, in the video embedded above, seniors Adam Holahan and Mialla Klohr dove into Native American history after feeling that Indigenous peoples’ stories had been homogenized. Another student embarked on a study of colorism and its effects on popular perceptions of Black women's hairstyles. 

In the above video, University City High School senior Merrick Hoel documented how her peers' perceptions of the police evolved over time to reflect now-common images of police brutality and violence towards Black communities.

In the audio file embedded below, Ian Feld and Zoe Yudovich, also seniors, undertook a comparative analysis of how desegregation efforts have played out between University City schools and a neighboring district. 

Seven student essays were published in a special issue of the Gateway Journalism Review entitled “The 1857 Project”—after the year of the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that Black Americans could not hold constitutional rights. Scott, enslaved in Missouri but living in free Illinois in bondage, sued for his freedom in 1857, only for the Court to hand down a landmark ruling which denied him or any Black person, enslaved or free, citizenship in the United States. 

Inspired by The 1619 Project, The 1857 Project connects present-day St. Louis to its legacy of enslavement and segregation. Bill Freivogel, the publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review, spent decades covering Civil Rights issues for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Freivogel penned the issue’s introductory essay and hopes the work will connect readers to the St. Louis region’s long history at the center of struggles against racial injustice. 

“We felt like there were a lot of untold stories that it would be good for people to understand,” he said. “So we reached out to people who had been involved in the Civil Rights struggles in St. Louis.”

Sneed is taking the lead in drafting a curriculum for area schools to use its different texts, in addition to fiction, prose, poetry and other historical documents, to help students connect slavery and race issues to their communities and their homes. 

“It will be a deep dive into understanding where you live and how slavery connects to the lived and shared experiences of the people around you,” she said. 

University City High School’s students, technically finished with the school year, are still in the process of finishing their final project of the unit—a documentary film that Sneed hopes to screen in the fall, containing references to the work done by each student in their independent projects, including Hoel's above project. In all, their inquiry into The 1619 Project’s ideas and premise has taken students down a road unfamiliar to many—one that centers race and racial inequities in their learning about their communities and country. 

“All my students felt that it was valuable work," she said. "If you’re not allowed to have intimate conversations, you’ll believe in single stories. It’s taboo to talk about race: Why? We teach them how to brush their teeth, to do everything, so why not teach them how to interact with people who may not look like them?”

During their inquiry, students also explored the magazine’s controversies and analyzed the statements of people who have tried to refute its arguments. Overall, they found that, especially in the context of Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place in every U.S. state, it is important to learn about race explicitly rather than implicitly or as a thing of the past.

“It starts with educating kids to disrupt systems,” Sneed said. “Not just learning about the issues.”

Explore The 1619 Project and Pulitzer Center curricular resources using the links below, and please reach out to us at education@pulitzercenter.org if you'd like to discuss bringing it into your classroom or collaborate.