The backstory: 7th grade history class is closing in on the start of the Civil War and the students are exploring the events of the 1850s. We started with the Compromise of 1850 and then marched our way forward: publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the Kansas-Nebraska Act; Bloody Kansas; the beating of Senator Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate; and yesterday’s topic, the Dred Scott ruling. The words of Justice Taney in that ruling, declaring enslaved people to be property and not citizens and invalidating the right of Congress to end slavery, are racist and profoundly unsettling to an audience of diverse and tolerant 7th graders. They were not amused and sought to wrap their minds around the details and its consequences.
Student D: Did enslaved people ever lose hope and take their own lives?
Me: I don’t know of any stories of people taking their own lives. Remember that we’ve talked about the fact that faith was a profound comfort to many people living in slavery.
Student D: They were so strong, weren’t they? Talk about living in hope!
We’re headed to a short-term happy ending of sorts in the form of emancipation. But I suspect there’s a longer term happy ending also in sight in the form of twelve and thirteen year olds prepared to truly understand the very complicated history of race in the United States.