Teaching Black History at Geneva High School

May 21st, 2023

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

I’ve often heard, “Young people don’t care about history.”

Maybe they haven’t heard their story yet.

Brandi Taylor, Geneva High School English teacher, invited me to speak to her African American Literature class. They were beginning a unit on slavery and segregation, using the Kathryn Grover book Make A Way Somehow: African American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965. Ms. Taylor said her students, many of them seniors, didn’t know anything about the history of Geneva’s Black community. They also didn’t know there was slavery in New York State.

That last statement is common among most people who visit the Geneva History Museum or Rose Hill Mansion. When I took 7th grade New York State history in 1973, slavery wasn’t taught. I don’t think I knew it when I began working here in 2000. Even my American History teacher father, whose idea of fun was visiting museums and telling me historical stories, didn’t bring it up. William Seward and Harriet Tubman, yes. Slavery in our backyard, no.

Last year Executive Director Kerry Lippincott wrote blogs on slavery in New York and slavery at Rose Hill Mansion. These are good starting points for anyone new to the history.

map of High and West Streets

1856 Geneva map showing Black homes on High and West Streets

When I visited the class I asked the students what they wanted to know, and one young man said, “Everything.” I covered slavery in general, in Geneva specifically, and where freed enslaved people settled after freedom. I spoke about job opportunities, limited housing options, and churches, up to the time of Dr. King’s assassination. Ms. Taylor asked if there was Ku Klux Klan activity in Geneva, which there was in the 1920s. I posed a question to the class: should we display the Klan sword in our collection? They all said, “Yes!” and wanted to see it. It was something the Black community (and other groups targeted by the Klan) experienced and students felt it should be displayed.

Students of color were disappointed that it took a guest speaker to come in before they learned about their history. They wondered why local Black history hadn’t been used in classes before. The African American Literature class was featured in a Spectrum News story earlier this year. You can view it and hear from students and school administrators here.

Historic Geneva looks for ways to connect with middle school and high school students. After the 5th grade, students are harder to reach with programming due to class schedules and limited time. We welcome teachers like Ms. Taylor to reach out to us to tell history relevant to students.

One response to “Teaching Black History at Geneva High School”

  1. Sharon Best says:

    Great, John! Iamso happy to learn that REAL history is being taught.. Sadly, it is not the norm. Thank you!

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