Linking to Our Past: Documenting the African American Experience in Virginia
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Linking to Our Past: Documenting the African American Experience in Virginia
Created and maintained by the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.
Reviewed Sept. 2008.

Linking to Our Past makes accessible a collection of historical sources related to African American history in Virginia. Supported by a grant from the Links Foundation, a women of color volunteer service organization, the Virginia Historical Society identified twelve historical sources to feature in this easily navigable digital history resource for secondary teachers. The Web site’s collection ranges chronologically from 1853 to 1993 and includes letters, a broadside, paintings, a teacher’s register, a lithograph, photographs, a sketch, and a speech. The sources chosen are designed to reflect the following concepts: identity, freedom, education, community, resistance, justice, and triumph. Each source is aligned to the Virginia’s Standards of Learning in Virginia Studies and U.S. history and comes with a teaching guide. Each teaching guide includes an introduction to the source, a content-rich information section that places the source in national, state, and local historical context, an archival context that illuminates the source’s provenance, the historical source itself, a typescript for handwritten sources, and an activities section to support the teaching of the source.

Issues of time and connections to the curriculum often serve as stumbling blocks to teachers using digital history sites. The tight focus, navigable structure, and limited selections of Linking to Our Past may well overcome such stumbling blocks for teachers seeking runaway slave letters, contemporary images of slave auctions, and sources relating to the African American experiences during Reconstruction, World War II, and the post–Brown v. Board of Education (1954) era. This strength may also be the site’s weakness, especially when looking for resources that foster inquiry-based practices in the history classroom.

The site embraces teacher-centered pedagogy, in which the teacher assigns a single source and students are expected to answer teacher-directed comprehension questions about it. This practice is a plausible way to support activities centered on document-based questions, but such a format is not necessarily designed for autonomous student engagement and inquiry in history. What is absent is a clear, consistent effort to help students see these sources as evidence to support the development of historical accounts within a context of inquiry. While questions are posited in the “Concepts” section, neither the concepts nor essential historical questions are explicitly or purposefully connected to any individual sources or, more importantly, to the collection of sources as a whole. Additionally, the media does not encourage students to begin to play with, magnify, or manipulate areas of the sources at will as a way to sift through the layers of inference as part of the process of exploring essential historical questions.

The site offers worthwhile sources to illuminate the experiences of African Americans. However, the opportunity cost of purposefully designing a site to provide teachers with access to historical sources appears to be a lack of attention given to including, at a minimum, overarching historical questions to foster student inquiry into the experiences of African Americans in Virginia.

David Hicks
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Virginia