Emanuel AME tragedy already part of Charleston history class

Kara Keale talks with junior Tyeshia Williams during her AP U.S. History Class at Burke High School.

In Kara Keale’s AP U.S. History class at Burke High School, junior Rashon Young scanned an article for a class project on CNN.com about a speech Hillary Clinton had made following the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

On a purple sheet of construction paper, he jotted down four points with a black Sharpie marker — the salient facts of last summer’s defining tragedy:

June 17, 2015

9 members

Bought gun w/o with permit

Wanted to start a race war

It’s not uncommon for the students in Keale’s class to think about the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel. Less than two miles separate Burke and Mother Emanuel, two of Charleston’s most iconic African-American institutions. Keale, Rashon’s teacher, remembers returning to summer school the Thursday after the shootings. Her students had so many questions, some more difficult to answer than others:

Why did this happen?

How did this happen — in the year 2015?

For Charleston social studies teachers such as Keale, a young and passionate Teach for America veteran, a new chapter of American history is being written in their own backyards. The challenge they face is contextualizing the Emanuel AME shooting within the scope of the United States’ brutal history of race and civil rights while being sensitive to their grieving school community, many of whom had family members who were inside the church on the evening Roof quietly slipped in with a pistol in his fanny pack.

“That place will be as pivotal as a Birmingham, as Montgomery, as Selma,” said Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist for the National Park Service who has worked tirelessly to document South Carolina’s historic landmarks. “This is a defining point in our American landscape.”

In Keale’s classroom, where students are queried daily on current events, the Emanuel shooting comes up “every single day,” she said.

“We talk about Walter Scott almost every single day,” she added. “Because it’s the world in which they live and it frames every conversation they have. Whether we’re talking about the progressive movement or antebellum South Carolina, it always come back to how does this impact your life today?”

At North Charleston High School, history teacher Anthony Ludwig has designed a human-rights curriculum, with College of Charleston Professor Jon Hale, that bridges the Holocaust with the American Civil Rights Movement. The curriculum, which Ludwig hopes to pilot next year, starts with the birth of human rights during Enlightenment and ends in the modern era. Students would study Nazi Germany, the fall of Communism, the Yugoslavian Civil War, the Emanuel AME shooting and its aftermath.

“Kids need to stop learning this, ‘Rosa sat, so Martin could dream, so Obama could run.’ It’s a nursery rhyme,” Ludwig said. It removes the entire meaning out of it, he said.

Keale, who grew up in Fair Haven, N.J., a small waterfront town outside of New York, said she can empathize with her students’ questions about the shooting. She was in the sixth grade when the Twin Towers toppled over Manhattan. The sky in Fair Haven was so black with soot and dust that students weren’t allowed to go outside for recess. She remembers walking home from school with her sister, watching her neighbors in tears. Four people in her town were killed, including the man who lived next door to her house. For weeks, her parents bounced between wakes and funerals, sometimes attending two in one day.

Back at school, her teachers didn’t talk about it. Keale reflects on that experience in her classroom when she discusses the Emanuel AME shooting with her students.

“I don’t presume to know what the victims feel like. I don’t presume to know what the victims’ families feel like, but I know what hurt feels like and I know how devastating it can be for a child to not feel respected or safe in a place where you should,” she said. “I know what it feels like to be ignored, and I wouldn’t want my students to feel that way.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764