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History Professor Mary Niall Mitchell Collaborates With New Orleans Teachers, Others on Pilot Project Using Freedom on the Move Data

NEW ORLEANS — University of New Orleans history professor Mary Niall Mitchell is collaborating with New Orleans public school teachers, museum directors and other community leaders to develop a K-12 curriculum using Freedom on the Move’s (FOTM) database of advertisements seeking runaway enslaved people.

The digital database, which Mitchell is a lead historian, is the largest digital collection of newspaper advertisements for people escaping from North American slavery. Culled from 18th- and 19th-century U.S. newspapers, the ads, placed by enslavers, are used to document the lives of people escaping bondage.

The goal of the public engagement history pilot program, according to FOTM historians, is to take learning “into the streets, to help students engage with the histories of enslaved people that can be tied to both the environment and the particular topography of the city of New Orleans and its environs.”

Following classroom instruction students will explore New Orleans and the region to visualize the social, spatial and cultural histories of enslaved people and then develop their own public-facing projects, including maps, visual art, spoken word, digital and video pieces.

FOTM received a nearly $150,000 grant in May from The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, an arm of The National Archives, to create a pilot program that could be replicated nationally.

With cost-sharing from UNO and its partners, the pilot engagement program is a $300,000 project, said Mitchell, who is also director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Study at UNO. The Midlo Center is administering the grant.

The pilot program is expected start in the fall of 2021 with professional development training.

The collaboration brings together historians, curriculum innovators, teachers, museum professionals and urban planners with the support of the Midlo Center, community spaces and artists.

Each of the groups will play a vital role in helping students engage with the advertisements in the FOTM databases and the stories of enslaved people that it contains.

One such story is about a woman named Jane who ran away from her enslaver in New Orleans in 1844.  Her enslaver placed an ad in the city’s newspaper describing her and seeking her return.

Jane’s act of resistance is why historians know—according to the advertisement—that she was about 19 years old, “rather talkative,” barefoot and wearing a blue dress when she left.  The advertisement provides a map of how Jane most likely moved about the city because it includes names of streets and locations where she was seen.

The public engagement project will allow elementary, middle and high school teachers and students to engage with the forgotten stories of Jane and others.

The insights the ads provide into the experiences of enslaved Africans and African American people are especially valuable because so little information about them as individuals has been preserved, FOTM project coordinators have said.

“It is hard to know how many of them succeeded, but because they ran we have these advertisements that describe them and tell something of their personal stories—what their personalities were like, what skills they had, their physical features, health or disabilities, recent histories of sale, family ties,” Mitchell has said.

“They are truly remarkable documents.  And there are thousands of them.”

After completing lessons on the historical context of slavery in New Orleans and the experiences of enslaved people, students will explore the topical places in the city and region via walking tours. The tours will include areas such as the city’s French Quarter and the grounds of Whitney Plantation located about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans in St. John the Baptist Parish.

In addition to several New Orleans public school teachers, the pilot program collaborators include:

The Hard History Project
The Hard History Project works to connect educators working in informal and formal education spaces through innovative use of archival and interpretive resources. Project founder and director, Kate Shuster, with educator Jarah Botello, designed and produced the initial Freedom on the Move educator portal. They will provide curriculum development and strategies for teachers.

Whitney Plantation Museum
Whitney Plantation Museum is a historic site and memorial in St. John the Baptist Parish dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the history of slavery and its legacies. Whitney Plantation educates the public through tours, exhibits and programming. Students will take a guided tour of the museum and will display some of their creative projects in the museum’s exhibition gallery in late spring and early summer.

DISPLACED New Orleans Project
Beginning with the formation of New Orleans and its cartography of violence and racial slavery, DISPLACED New Orleans traces the geographies of black displacement, dislocation, containment and disposability in land-use planning, housing policy, and urban development in the city combining a timeline and atlas highlighting moments of refusal, rupture, and protest.
Project producer and director, Shana Griffin, will develop a one-hour version of her DISPLACED walking tour along the riverfront and through the French Quarter, tailored to the students’ curriculum and their work with FOTM. She will lead group discussion at tour stops and produce a special DISPLACED booklet for the students to use on the tour, with maps and other information about the history of slavery in the city’s built environment and spatial geography.

Antenna Gallery/ Paper Machine
Antenna is a New Orleans-based organization that serves as a vital participant in the life of the city through the creation and support of artist- and writer-driven programs. With guidance from Mitchell, Shuster, Botello and participating teachers, Antenna will design creative kits related to FOTM for the students to use in the classroom and in the city. These will include maps for pinpointing sites of escape found in FOTM newspaper ads, notebooks with writing prompts, posters, word searches and other activities. The map will be printed with age-appropriate historical context for children. The kits will be produced by Antenna’s print shop, Paper Machine.

Neighborhood Story Project
The Neighborhood Story Project, located in an old corner store building in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, works with public schools, grassroots organizations, community-based museums, and other important cultural institutions to create books, exhibits, events and courses that explore how individual life histories are connected to the broader cultural and historical dynamics of the city and the world. The NSP will contribute exhibit and programming space for viewing student work. Its director, Rachel Breunlin, professor of practice at UNO, will assist with programming development, including public workshops around FOTM and publicity for these events.

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