Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Teaching About Japanese American Incarceration

In 1942, the United States government unjustly incarcerated over 120,000 Japanese Americans. Anti-Asian American racism and fear of economic competition with white-owned farms and businesses have been widely documented as the main causes. Traditionally, Japanese American incarceration has been told through the U.S. government's narrative. Students study from textbooks, government documents, and even photographs and films that the government created to portray a "sanitized" version of what happened. I hope this post can support teachers in telling a different story that centers Japanese Americans, their voices, and their experiences.  I start by telling the story of my in-laws, who were incarerated as children, followed by a discussion of incarceration language, a document-based lesson plan, and additional resources.

My Family-in-Law's Story

Above: (Right) The Hashimoto family in a picture taken at Tule Lake Segregation Center in Newell, California. (Left) The Nakai family in a picture taken in Berkeley, California at a house where they lived with several other family members after being released from Tule Lake.

We need the teaching of history to better humanize the experiences of people in the past. In this case, Japanese American incarceration is a personal topic for my family and it is important that I begin this post by telling their story...

My father-in-law was incarcerated when he was 3 years old (above left is a picture from Tule Lake around the time of his family's release; Frank is on the right) and my mother-in-law was born at Tule Lake (above right is a picture from about a year after her family's release; Daphne is on the left). Growing up, my wife would hear occasional stories from her grandparents and parents about life in "camp" (there is a great amount of sadness and anger about the incarceration, so many Japanese Americans rarely share their stories). Since my daughters were little, they have also known that their grandparents were in prison camps as children and routinely ask them questions about it. They know the importance of never forgetting what happened. A few years ago, when they learned that migrant children were being imprisoned at the southern U.S. border (see the Tsuru for Solidarity movement), they demanded that we do everything we could to help stop it (because it was similar to their grandparents' experiences).

Above: My family attending a 2018 protest in Boston to stop the detention of migrant children and forced family separation. This is an on-going problem that has not ended under the Biden administration.

My in-laws and their families have heartbreaking, but also remarkable, stories. Daphne Nakai's grandmother and grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s. They would migrate back-and-forth to Japan a couple times likely for work and personal reasons. They would eventually settle in San Francisco. In the early 1920s, Daphne's father Steve (who was one years old) moved to Japan with his mother and siblings. His father would stay behind to work and send the family money. Tragically, he would die in a car accident in San José. As a teenager, Steve would return to the U.S. in 1938 and he was living in Berkeley, where he was a gardener. When the word came that the U.S. government was "evacuating" Japanese Americans from the West Coast, he moved with his fiancé and her family to Lodi in the Central Valley to avoid it (Lodi is also where they would get married, so they would not be separated during their imprisonment). They would eventually be incarcerated at Rohwer in Arkansas.     

Frank Hashimoto's grandfather and grandmother immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s (after the war, they would open what we think may have been the first Japanese market in Alameda, California; see below). Due to restrictive Asian immigration laws, Frank's grandfather took a ship to Mexico and crossed the U.S. border with a group of about 30 other Japanese men at Eagle Pass, Texas (where there were fewer immigration restrictions at the time). He then made his way from there to Southern California and eventually would settle in the Bay Area. His children were kibei, meaning that they were sent back to Japan for their education. When Frank was born, his father had returned to the U.S. and was teaching at a Japanese language school for farmer's children in Pescadero, California (see below). My father-in-law was named Franklin by his parents, after Franklin Roosevelt, because before moving to Pescadero, his family was able to secure public housing through the New Deal. However, since the time of his incarceration, he has only gone by the name of Frank, as it was FDR who signed the Executive Order 9066 that imprisoned him and his family. As World War II broke out, the Hashimotos moved back to the East Bay to be closer to family members. They were eventually imprisoned at Topaz in Utah. 

Above: (Bottom) The Japanese School in Pescadero, California. (Top) Hashimoto Foods in Alameda, California.

Japanese Americans found numerous ways to resist their incarceration. People like Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Mitsuye Endo, and Min Yasui used the legal system (sadly, they and others were denied their rights through the decision in Korematsu v. the United States). Others protested through attempting to move eastward, engage in civil disobedience and draft resistance. For example, Frank's future sister-in-law's family would famously hang a "I Am An American" sign outside their Oakland grocery store (see below), which they were forced to sell due to incarceration. Some Japanese Americans were able to find non-Japanese American accomplices who would "hold onto" their homes, stores, or land while they were incarcerated (yet, others lost their property to dishonest people or unfair selling prices). 

Above: Owned by the Masuda family, the Wanto Shokai grocery store was located in downtown Oakland. Tetsuo Masuda, a graduate of UC Berkeley, took over the business after his sisters, Mineko and Yoshiko, were sent to camp. Tetsuo created the “I Am an American” sign in 1943. The remaining family members moved to Fresno County, hoping they would not be evacuated. The whole family would eventually be incarcerated at Gila River in Arizona.

All of my wife's grandparents were what are referred to as "No-nos," meaning when the government forced them to complete a loyalty questionnaire in 1943, they answered "no" to questions 27 and 28 (asking about their willingness to serve in combat and renounce loyalty to the Emperor of Japan). As a result of their answers to those questions, the Nakai and Hashimoto families were moved to Tule Lake Segregation Center in California. For many years after incarceration, families who answered "no-no" were stigmatized for not being loyal to the United States. However, today, some in the Japanese American community have elevated their stories as the resisters of incarceration. Since they were seen as the most disloyal by the U.S. government, many families (including the Hashimotos and Nakais) were not released from camp until 1946. Both families struggled to find work after camp. The also faced racist housing descrimination in the Bay Area (similar to the experiences of African American and Latinos at the time).


The language that we use when we teach Japanese American incarceration is important. As Densho states, "government officials and military leaders used euphemisms to describe their punitive and unjust actions against people of Japanese ancestry in the United States. ... Today, these decades-old euphemisms persist in textbooks, news sources, and other platforms—meaning that most Americans learn about this history through a distorted lens that diminishes the harsh realities of Japanese American WWII incarceration." Below, I have underlined the terms that many Japanese American organizations prefer be used.

Japanese Americans vs. Japanese: 

During World War II and after, Japanese Americans were routinely referred to as the Japanese (or worse by racial epithets) to "other" them and to imply that they were not "Americans" but foreigners in their own country. Moreover, 2/3rds of those incarcerated held American citizenship and the remaining were Americans by choice. For these reasons, it is important to describe those who were incarcerated as Japanese Americans.

Incarceration vs. internment: 

Internment, as Densho describes, is the legally permissible, but ethically and morally questionable, practice of imprisoning "enemy aliens" during wartime. This term is misleading, as a majority of those people incarcerated were American citizens and the term of internment has long been part of falsely justifying their incarceration as "enemy aliens." A more appropriate term would be "incarceration," which means to confine in a prison. Moreover, internment has an underlying suggestion that Japanese Americans were likely to commit espionage, sabotage, or other acts against the Unites States. Which is false, as there is no credible evidence of Japanese Americans engaging in sabotage or espionage during the war.

Forced removal vs. relocation: 

The U.S. government preferred to use relocation to describe Japanese Americans' forced removal (see this propaganda film), because it implied it was for their own good (such as an evacuation during a natural disaster. Forced removal better describes how Japanese Americans were taken from their homes against their wills.   

Concentration camps/prison camps vs. internment camps/relocation centers: 

During the period, the government used the terms relocation centers and concentration camps to describe the incarceration of Japanese Americans (There are documents showing that FDR himself used the term concentration camps). After the war, internment camp became a standard academic term to describe the prison camps (see above problems with the use of internment). As Densho states, the "use of 'concentration camp' is intended to accurately describe what Japanese Americans were subjected to during WWII, and is not meant to undermine the experiences of Holocaust survivors or to conflate these two histories in any way." Moreover, Holocaust scholars themselves often distinguish "concentration camps," where people were held, from "death camps" or "extermination camps," where Jewish people and others were systematically murdered.

A Lesson Plan

Based on a lesson that I used when I taught high school history, below you will find an activity that I use as a teacher educator today working with future teachers. While it includes several important government documents from the perspectives of white people, it attempts to highight how Japanese Americans experienced and resisted their incarceration. It also shows how Japanese Americans sustained their culture in camp. I have included it in PDF and Word, so teachers can edit the documents to best work for their students.

PDF: http://www.christophercmartell.com/JapaneseAmericanIncarcerationActivity.pdf

Word: http://www.christophercmartell.com/JapaneseAmericanIncarcerationActivity.docx

Additional Resources

Below is a list of excellent resources that center Japanese Americans within incarceration. Most are created and maintained by Japanese American organizations. 

Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project (Primary and Secondary Sources) 

Densho: WWII Incarceration (Storyboard)

We Hereby Refuse (Graphic Novel)

TedEd Talk: Ugly History: Japanese American Incarceration Camps (Short Film)

Unfinished Business (Film)

Resistance at Tule Lake (Film)

Children of the Camps (Film)

Japanese American National Museum (Museum; Includes Online Exhibits)

Uprooted! (Museum Exhibit)

The Art of Gaman Exhibit (Art)

The Suyama Resisters Project (Primary and Secondary Sources)

KQED: Japanese American Incarceration and Indigenous Dispossession (Article and Map)

Facing History: Japanese American Incarceration (Resources)

National Archives: Japanese American Incarceration (Documents)

Then They Came for Me (Photographs)

Saturday, October 9, 2021

It's Time for a Return to an Elected Boston School Committee

As a Boston Public Schools (BPS) parent, Citywide Parent Council (CPC) Representative, educator (former social studies teacher and current teacher educator), and Dorchester resident, I've long advocated for an elected school committee. I am not alone, as many parents (like my colleague on the CPC Suleiko Soto and fellow Dorchester parent Matthew Shochat), students, and former elected school committee members (such as Jean McGuire) have been demanding this for years. This movement has culminated in a ballot question this fall, asking the residents to vote on returning to an elected school committee here in Boston.

Boston is the only municipality in Massachusetts without an elected school committee due to a home rule petition and bill passed by the state legislature in 1991. Of course, many people remember the Boston Busing Crisis of the mid-1970s, which was a situation made worse by the actions of the all-white school committee at the time (I recommend watching this or reading this, which provide an excellent background). However, the move to a mayoral appointed Boston School Committee had nothing to do with the busing crisis and it did not occur until about 15 years later. In fact, in the early 1990s, it was parents of color who were the strongest opponents to an appointed school committee (including Black political leaders like John D. O'Bryant, Charles Yancey, and Bruce Bolling). In contrast, a white parent-led door-to-door campaign in favor of the mayor having control was effective and the measure narrowly passed in a non-binding referendum

Above: My daughters, who are Boston Public School students, when told what Question 3 was, said, "We should be able to vote for the school committee!" (they have attended school committee meetings in the past and know how important they are) and made these signs.

Yet, in the years since, the appointed school committee has not been the panacea that its supporters claimed it would be. There was turmoil in the early years, unpopular decisions in the 90s and early 2000s (see here, here, here, and here), years of unanimous votes based on the mayor's wishes, and several problematic recent decisions and incidents (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The community may already understand the importance of this issue, as there seems to be widespread support among both voters and city council candidates. Even former mayor Ray Flynn, who pushed for the change, expressed regrets only a few years later.

Above: Boston is the only municipality in Massachusetts without an elected school committee.

To be honest, any structure has disadvantages and it would be naïve to think changing the structure alone would inherently produce more equitable access for students to high-quality learning (related, I am also concerned about the amount of dark money flowing into school committee races nationwide). Regardless of structure, the reality is that educational equity comes from district leadership, the work of teachers and administrators, and funding choices made by the city and state. To be fair, Boston has made important educational improvements over the past few decades, including making the city's exam schools (see also here) more equitable for students of color, dramatically expanding the number preschool seats, and having increases in its students' scores on national standardized tests. But these changes have come despite not having an elected school committee, rather than because of having an appointed one. It is likely those changes would have happened regardless; Boston has significantly changed in many ways (including the city's wealth) since the 1990s. Moreover, the Boston City Council is the most diverse in its history, and structures can be put in place to ensure that an elected school committee would similarly represent the diversity of our city.

Above: Jean McGuire was the first African American woman to be elected to the Boston School Committee. She opposed ending the elected school committee and supports its return. Read her thoughts here.

There is a long history of democratically elected school committees in Massachusetts. Boston voters elected their first School Committee in 1789. The Commonwealth mandated that each community elect its school committee in 1826 (during the era of Horace Mann's education reforms). Since then, school committees have served as citizen oversight of our public schools. For me, this is an issue of democracy, equity, and racial justice. If the other 350 municipalities have elected school committees in Massachusetts, so should the one where I live, especially since this is a city where people of color are the majority and 85% of our students are students of color. Since 1991, Boston's residents have been disenfranchised on this aspect of democracy. For this reason alone, we should restore an elected school committee.

Ludlow High School (above; what it looked like in the 1990s) had not had any major reservations since it was built in 1962. As a high school student, I worked with my peers to influence the elected School Committee and Board of Selectmen to change that. As a teacher and union member in the Framingham Public Schools (below), I witnessed how the elected school committee was often responsive to parents and voters in the community.

My support for Yes on Question 3 is also based on my experiences living and working in three different Massachusetts communities. I have seen stark differences between communities with elected and unelected school committees. I grew up in Ludlow, which is a suburb of Springfield. When I was in high school, our school building was in great disrepair. My classmates and I witnessed members of the Board of Selectman make clear that they wanted to keep property taxes low and would not support borrowing to make renovations. As a result, students in town formed a movement to pursue change. Many seniors were 18 and we voted as a block to elect pro-renovation candidates to the board of selectman and school committee. This led to changes in leadership, and the town would later approve a multi-million dollar renovation of the building. 

My next experience was as a teacher and union member in the Framingham Public Schools, where I was a high school history and government teacher for eight years. For two of those years, I served as the Political Education Chair for the Framingham Teachers Association. In that role, I led protests related to stalled contract negotiations and a campaign to reduce class size. While we did not always see eye-to-eye with school committee members, I knew each of the members and they would almost always respond to and work with the teachers union (the district eventually settled our contract and added language about reviewing class size yearly). More importantly, in our conversations, they would often cite the concerns of parents and voters in how they made the decisions, as that is who they were ultimately accountable to. 

Meanwhile, I was raising my family in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston without an elected school committee. As someone with a child about to enter school, I deeply opposed the changes that were proposed to the district's school assignment process, which would move from a large number of choices within three zones to a home-based system that would result in parents having fewer choices (based on an algorithm that proclaimed to be race-neutral). Along with many others, I knew that these changes would negatively impact Black and Latinx families the most, but would also make the districts' schools more segregated. I wrote letters opposing the plan with no reply from school committee members, attended community meetings, testified at hearings, and met with fellow parents. I closely examined the work of Quality Education for Every Student, who had similar concerns. We then all watched as the unelected school committee unanimously approved the change despite protests (several studies have shown that our suspicions were correct and the district has experienced increased segregation as a result). 

After my daughter entered BPS, I was motivated to run to be the Citywide Parent Council representative for her school (the CPC is the umbrella organization for all of parent councils in the district and the officially recognized voice of all BPS parents). As a CPC rep., I saw again and again how us parents were relatively united on most issues (from changing the food services vendor to stopping schools from being closed and demanding tents for outdoor lunch during a global pandemic), but the school committee often hesitated to respond or outright voted against our stances. Moreover, we were almost never visited by school committee members, with the exception of a couple years ago when the chair came to lecture us on his preferred agenda (where he made clear that the appointed school committee provided "harmony" and that he was a "city finance guy, not an education guy."). My time as a CPC rep. has been five years of feeling voiceless and powerless (and I think most of my fellow CPC reps. would agree). In contrast, whenever I called or e-mailed my district or at-large city councilors, I have always received replies within days. Several city councilors have visited the Citywide Parent Council to work with us on various BPS and education-related issues. In fact, my daughters' school was not approved to expand to include a 6th grade, which would have had a devastating effect on our school community (especially since many secondary schools in Boston begin at grade 7 and parents had for years been left struggling to find school options for one year; we would routinely have a large exodus of students to K-8 schools in 4th grade for this reason). We wrote letters to and protested at school committee meetings. However, it was not until parents in our community reached out to our city councilors and they became involved, that we finally were given a meeting with the superintendent's office and received word that our school would get its needed expansion

While an elected school committee will not solve all of our educational problems in Boston, it can only help add a level of accountability through the return to democracy. Democracy is messy, but it is the best form of government we have. This is true for the Boston School Committee, as well.

The time is now for us to return to an elected school committee in Boston.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Teaching Using Critical Family Histories

Above: Genealogical research has become a popular past time for some people, but, done with a critical lens, it also offers an important way to understand social power and privilege leading to a more accurate understanding of the present for students.

Most historians know that senior citizens love doing genealogy. Over the years, I have visited many libraries and archives that hold state and national records to do research, and I have always been impressed at how many folks in retirement are there scouring Census and municipal wedding records trying to know more about who they are and where their families come from. With the recent popularity of DNA ancestry kits, more middle aged and young adults are getting also involved in researching their family's past (related, here is an article on how DNA ancestry tests work better for white people). This has been made even easier in recent years with more records becoming digitized and many can now be easily accessed from the comfort of one's home.

However, in my recent book with Kaylene Stevens on teaching history for justice, we suggest that ancestor research, especially when it involves critical historical analysis, can be a powerful tool for younger people to also engage in history. More importantly, when used in the classroom, it can help make history more relevant to their lives and helps students understand a more complex and honest story of their family's past.

Above: Many people have long been interested in researching their family histories and there are many books to help. There are many resources for white genealogists, but it is often harder to find resources for people of color's ancestors. Blackpast has a nice set of resources for African American genealogy. The National Indian Law Library lists these resources for Native genealogy. Family Tree Magazine lists these resources for Latinx genealogy. Christine Sleeter has compiled these resources for Asian American genealogy.

What are Critical Family Histories?

As Christine Sleeter described it, critical family history is a tool for understanding how one's family history relates to larger social power relationships and cultures (here is a special issue of the journal Genealogy on it). While her work focuses primarily on its use by white people, I would like to describe how it can benefit all students within the history classroom (it also can be a way to get around prohibitions on teaching race and racism that have emerged recently in politically conservative states).

For white students, critical family histories can serve as a place to consider how their families may have struggled and achieved accomplishments overtime, but also how systems were in place to ensure their success and accumulation of wealth and social stability. Sleeter wrote, "White people, especially those of middle class status and above, tend to think of ourselves and our stories in individualistic terms. But since who we are involves not just the work of individuals, but also how individuals’ lives were shaped by local culture and power relationships across generations, ... this illuminates the social contexts of family lives, and that would help to unearth memories we have lost."

For students of color, critical family histories can serve as a place to understand how their family's stories have been shaped by the realities of oppression, but in a way that uplifts by providing examples of resistance, survival/survivance, and accomplishment. It can help explain to students why ancestors made certain choices (sometimes forced), and allows students to draw connections between their family's past and their present. It is important for teachers to also be mindful that the only times that students of color often learn their histories is when topics involve their ancestors' oppression (Black students often only see their ancestors in the curriculum through enslavement and segregation. Indigenous students see their ancestors through white colonization. Asian American students see their ancestors through Japanese incarceration during World War II or poor treatment during the building of the Transcontinental railroad. Latinx students see their ancestors through undocumented immigration in the past half-century). The point of critical family histories is to not only teach about historical oppression, but also fill in the gaps of perseverance and success between those difficult moments.  

Above: Images from the same historical periods of European immigrants entering the U.S. at Ellis Island and African Americans working as sharecroppers on what were formerly plantations of enslaved people. Rarely do white people think about how their ancestors' immigrant experience related to sharecroppers' lives during that same era. Understanding these and other groups' interrelated historical experiences is at the heart of critical family history.

Usually when people construct family trees, they locate as much information as possible about their ancestors without thinking much about historical context or social structures. Like any family tree project, critical family histories begin with the individual and starts working background, collecting information, drawing connections, and tracing family histories. However, unlike traditional family histories, each step of the process must also involve a contextualizing  of ancestors' experiences with the events and social structures of the time. 

For instance, if a white student is researching about their grandparents who were born after World War II, it is essential that they look at the social policies and practices at the time. For instance, if they learn that their family moved from an inner city to a suburb in the 1950s, it is important to also examine local redlining practices (here is a great website that maps the inequity of redlining) and describe how it may have played a role in giving certain groups advantages over others. When a student is researching their great grandparents who immigrated from Europe, they should also examine the impact of the 1924 and 1965 Immigration Acts, and how first created the concept of so-called "illegal immigration" and that Europeans arriving before it, came with relatively few restrictions (and it dramatically restricted immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa).

Critical Family History Questions and Process

When engaging in critical family histories, Christine Sleeter suggests students should be guided by the following questions: 

  • Who else (what other groups) was around? 
  • What were the power relationships among groups? 
  • How were these relationships maintained or challenged over time? 
  • What does all this have to do with our lives now?

She also offers a process for helping engage in critical family histories, which involves several steps:

Step 1 is to expose students to critical frameworks (such as the Historical Context Questions Framework and the Hidden 4 P's of Immigration), so they better understand how power dynamics and social structures operate. I recommend reading books on how concepts of race, racism, and whiteness have changed over time and led to certain groups gaining power and privilege over time (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here are few excellent books to excerpt).

Step 2 is to have students engage in oral history interviews with their relatives. Have them ask family members to bring old photos, records, letters, artifacts, etc. This will often help students begin creating a list of "clues" that need further researching. Students may want to make digital scans of these items, so they can preserve them for themselves and family members. Also, realize that some students may be adopted or may not have much information on their families for a host of different reasons. I suggest giving those students different options for the project (especially if looking into their family history may cause duress or harm), including working with a classmate on their family history or researching the family of a famous person.

Step 3 is to have students take whatever relevant evidence that they have received about their family's past and then construct a family tree. There are a few good websites that can help students manage family trees and some offer some free access to certain records and documents (here, here, and here are some popular ones; some websites are run by religious groups or share family trees with other members-so you will want to let your students and their parents know that, so they can think about confidentiality). 

Step 4 is to begin searching vital records to learn more about the people in the family tree (it would be helpful for students to get from family members as many names, birth and death dates, and home locations of relatives as possible). Birth, marriage, death, and immigration records often reveal additional information about relatives and events. In this step, students often uncover more members of the family tree by finding connections in the public records (the Census can be especially helpful as it shows who is living in the same household and includes the names of family members and shows their relationship). Here are some great places to gain free access to individual records: U.S. (more here and here), Canadian, and Mexican Census Records, West Coast and Ellis Island Immigration Records, American Indian Federal Records, Federal Slavery Records, Federal Freedman Bureau Records, Japanese American Relocation Records, Chinese Immigration National Archives Guides, Jewish Global Records, Grave Records, Newspaper Archives (also here), Land and Deed Records, Bureau of Land Management Records, or even putting ancestors names in Google or other search engines (this may reveal unconventional family documents or stories). Many communities also have historical societies that can help locate information or documents.

Step 5 is to search for additional resources that give context to the students' ancestors' experiences. This is the most important step, as it is what adds the "critical" to family history. I suggest before proceeding to this step that teachers explicitly teach about some important oppression-related historical concepts that may arise as students research their ancestors, including settler-colonialism, slavery, segregation/redlining/employment and education discrimination, anti-immigration policy, and the role of race and class in military drafts. This would also be an important place to have students research major events of their ethnic/racial communities. 

Above: The Nakai family, who were Japanese Americans living in Berkeley, California in the 1940s (top; my mother-in-law is the child on the bottom left) and the Salinas family who were Mexican Americans living in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1980s (bottom).

For instance, if a student is Japanese American, it would be important for them to learn about Japanese American incarceration during World War II (they may or may not have learned about it from their family, as many Japanese Americans are still unable to share about their experience), which was an event that impacted the entire community, even if certain members were not imprisoned by the government. However, it would also be important for the students to research other important components of the Japanese American experience (and Asian American experience more broadly), such as Angel Island, Asian exclusion acts, discrimination of Japanese American farmers, kibei or returning for education in Japan, survival of Japanese American communities and creation of the Japanese American National MuseumImmigration Act of 1952, and redlining housing practices), but this should be done in tandem with the students asking about the experiences of other ethnic/racial and social groups groups during those same periods (for instance, how did other Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and white people experience World War II? What aspects were similar or different for Japanese Americans?). Be sure to avoid essentializing experiences. For example, teachers will often problematically teach the experiences of a group as a monolith. For example, there has been no one Latinx experience in U.S. history-for each group, it varies based on ancestors' country of origin, geography, and period. 

Step 6 is to have the students "go public" with their critical family history findings. This can be done by having students create a report or presentation on their family emphasizing the critical and contextual findings. I recommend that white teachers first model this by sharing their own family histories modeling how to discuss the role of privilege or power in their own family stories. Teachers of color may want to pair with a white colleague sharing their stories together to help white students see how historical experiences often contrast based on race. The purpose of sharing is not to have everyone find oppression in their stories, but rather provide a more honest and complex contextualization of family histories. It is important that teachers continually ask students to return back to those critical frameworks as their lenses, which will help them see their families' histories within a larger and more complex social context.

If done well, critical history projects can be incredibly powerful for students. They can evoke a sense of pride in students (including white students) by learning of all that their ancestors did (much of it positive), but also adds important context and reveals power dynamics, making it more truthful and helping students understand how the structures that governed their ancestor's experiences influence their lives today and in many ways continue in the current day. 

Example: My Own Critical Family History

Above: (Left) My great grandfather (with hat; as a child standing behind his tenement in Holyoke, Mass.), whose family immigrated from Québec in Canada and (Right) my great grandmother (on right, in an family portrait taken in Chicopee, Mass.), whose family immigrated from Galicia in Poland.

As a white person with ancestors from French Canada and Poland, I was long told that my ancestors struggled as a result of their difficult choices to immigrate to the U.S. (which is certainly true in many ways), but engaging in critical family history helped me understand how my family also enjoyed certain advantages and privileges that influenced my opportunities in the present.

My great grandparents were French Canadian immigrants who took trains from Montréal, Québec to Holyoke, Massachusetts in the 1890s (my great grandfather actually grew up in a tenement building right next to the train station). Like many farmers in Québec, my ancestors struggled during a major economic depression in the mid- to late-1800s and made the same choice as 900,000 other French Canadians who moved to New England to work in the factories (as well as logging and farming industries). Holyoke was a paper mill town where they found dangerous and low paying jobs and faced discrimination from the Anglo and Irish populations that had already settled there.

However, that is only part of their story (and might have been the only one revealed, if my family history only focused on my ancestor's experience without a larger social context). When I traced my family history through Québec genealogy records, I found that the first Martel (My family lore said that my great grandfather changed the spelling of our last name to avoid debts, which I was able to partially confirm through various records) was a person named Honoré Martel. He was a soldier in the French Army from Paris who fought in the Caribbean and Canada. He would marry Marguerite Lamirault, a woman from Paris who came with the filles du roy or King's daughters (a program created by Louis XIV to ensure a long-term French settlement in Canada). This was the first evidence that I had that my French Canadian ancestors benefited from systems that privileged white people. My 8th great grandfather had participated in the killing and taking of land of Indigenous people, including the Abenaki, Atikamekw, Huron-Wendats, Mohawk, and others. My 8th great grandmother came as part of a settler-colonial project to permanently inhabit those same peoples' land. This was a troubling part of my family's past, something I needed to directly confront as my part in a settler-colonial system that still exists and that I still benefit from today.

Above: A FOLC redlining map showing where my great grandfather grew up in Holyoke and then moved to a farm in Ludlow.

Fast forward to the 20th century. My great grandfather Donat Lapointe lived with his family in a part of "The Flats" of Holyoke called Frenchville. Most of his neighbors were French Canadian immigrants who work in the factories there. They attended a francophone Catholic Church called L'Église-du-Précieux-Sang (Precious Blood Church). They played in the back lot of their tenement (the only picture that we have of his childhood is of him with siblings and cousins there). However, French Canadians began moving out of Holyoke in large numbers in the 1920s. After getting married, my great grandfather bought a farm in the neighboring town of Ludlow, where French Canadians created their own new church called Église-Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Saint John the Baptist Church). In fact, by the New Deal, the area that my grandfather had grown up in was redlined in a process where the map was literally colored red which meant "hazardous." As the French Canadians moved out, Polish, Greek, Russian, and Italian immigrants moved into the area. In the 1950s, Puerto Rican migrants settled in that same area. This was another troubling aspect of my family's history, as they participated in the "white flight" of the era. In this process, my family benefited from a system of whiteness that allowed them to own a house and land after one generation, where Black and Latinx residents were essentially redlined from their suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts. Additionally, with the movement of white people to the suburbs, places like Holyoke were given less government resources to maintain and improve their communities. Highways, like Interstate 91, 291, and 391 were built through Holyoke and Springfield (dividing neighborhoods), so people like my great grandfather (who by the 1950s worked at a Westinghouse Factory in Springfield in addition to maintaining their farm) could drive to work from the suburbs.  

This same story repeated for my Polish ancestors, who fled poverty in Galicia in the early 1900s and immigrated directly to Ludlow where they worked in factories. While the work conditions were poor (they may have participated in the 1909-1910 Ludlow Strike led by Polish immigrants), the factories generally practiced employment discrimination against the area's African American population. Much like my French Canadian relatives, they benefited from changing definitions of whiteness and owned land and had stable employment within a generation. Moreover, my Polish grandparents were able to help establish a Polish Catholic Church in Ludlow, where they were able to preserve their religion, culture, and language (Polish is still spoken there), and no one accused them of being disloyal to the United States (unlike my wife's family's experience when they formed Japanese American communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, as it resulted in a very different treatment by white people in the area).

Example: My Former Students and Critical Family Histories

Above: Students from Framingham High School at graduation.

As a former teacher in the Framingham Public Schools, which is an immigrant community just west of Boston (that has a very similar New England factory town story to Holyoke), I would have my students interview their family members and research their family's immigration, forced migration, or Indigenous histories. White students were fascinated to learn most families came before 1924 without restriction, which troubled the "my family came here legally" narrative. Many traced their roots to the mass Irish, Italian, or Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Others were descendants of the first white people to settle in the town in the 1700s, or the smaller African American community that developed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a few students' parents being members of the Nipmuc or Wamponoag tribes. Many of my students' families had migrated from Puerto Rico to work in the town's farms in the 1950s and 60s. The most recent wave of immigrants came from Brazil in the 1980s and Central America and East Africa in the 2000s. For many, this project was their first time hearing of their families' struggles to come to New England.

Many of Latinx and Asian American students learned of the sacrifices their parents made (sometimes forced to come undocumented) due to 1965 immigration changes (one student even learned that his family came here in a container ship-risking his life). Puerto Rican students often heard stories of their families not being seated at local fancy restaurants along Route 9. Some African American students learned about their grandparents or great grandparents moves to the North during the Great Migration, but also that they could only find housing in certain areas just outside downtown. One student relayed a story that his father told him about being a stowaway on a container ship from Brazil, where he risked his life to come to the United States. 

White students would often learn about the sacrifices that their families made when they immigrated from Italy or Ireland. However, they also learned about how the town had long had racial divisions between the north side and south side (which was divided by two main highways, Route 9 and the Massachusetts Turnpike) due to racial covenants and other racist housing policies and practices. Students who were descendants of the first settlers in Framingham learned how their ancestors participated in numerous acts of violence toward Native people. They learned that an important act of Native resistance, where often recorded in the town history through white narratives (such as the Nipmuc Uprising traditionally called the Eames Massacre or the numerous acts of resistance by Tantamous). Students grappled with the ways that these events led to a town where their people benefited at the expense of others.

For my students and myself, critical family histories helped us understand how we were advantaged and disadvantaged by different forms of oppression, how the complicated histories of how our ancestors experienced the world frame our present, and how we can use that knowledge in the future to seek more fair and just outcomes from everyone in our communities. As students continued to learn U.S. history through the remainder of the year, I saw how they know could imagine where their ancestors appeared within the historical periods that we were studying, but it helped give them lenses for understanding other peoples' ancestors experienced those same events.