In October, historian Blair L. M. Kelley joined Jesse Hagopian, Rethinking Schools editor and high school teacher, to discuss Kelley’s book, Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class. This session was part of the Zinn Education Project’s Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online people’s history series

In the audiogram from the session below, Kelley explains how Pullman porters organized against their own exploitation and advocated on behalf of Black workers throughout the country.

Participants shared what they learned and additional reflections on the session:

I loved Dr. Kelley’s stories of her family, and how she connected her family stories to the stories of the Black working class in general.
“When we don’t talk about Black history, we’re missing part of the story about this moment.” This was a huge key theme — that the work done by the Black community to unionize and fight for labor rights is critical to the prosperity of all workers.
I’m going to integrate this information into my science classes to show how Black people, and Black women particularly, keep this country running, and also how Black workers are the inventors.

A week after the online class, the Zinn Education Project hosted a curriculum workshop for Teaching for Black Lives study groups focused on teaching about Black labor and white racism. Jesse Hagopian facilitated the workshop and opened by playing a video clip from Kelley’s session.

Hagopian introduced the teaching activity, an abbreviated version of “It’s a Mystery: White Workers Against Black Workers” lesson by Bill Bigelow.

Each participant was assigned one of the thirty-two clues that would help them answer five big questions. 

  • What major changes took place in Midwest City from the period before World War I to after?
  • After World War I, what problems faced Midwest City residents for which whites may have blamed Black people?
  • What were Black workers’ attitudes towards white workers and employers during the time?
  • Who benefited from Black people being scapegoated? Explain.
  • Did unions benefit or suffer from going along with the discrimination?

As Hagopian read each question, participants would raise their hand or unmute to share a clue that is related to that question. 

After the questions were answered, Hagopian asked, “So what’s the answer to the mystery? Why did racial hatred intensify after World War I?”

One participant answered, “Scarcity of resources. When people think they’re going to lose resources, everyone tries to keep as much as they can for themselves.”

Hagopian agreed and said, “Employers say there’s a scarcity of resources and Black people are taking them, while hiding the fact that employers are hoarding way more of the wealth and resources. The key for them is to increase racial hostility between workers so they don’t form a united front to demand wages all workers deserve.” 

In small breakout groups, educators brainstormed how they might use or adapt the lesson. 

In the closing, Hagopian shared the additional labor resources below.

Workshop participants said:

It was engaging and riveting. Perfect amount of time for the lesson.
It was great! Experiencing the lesson from a student’s perspective really gave insight into how powerful this lesson could be in the classroom.
I LOVED the use of time to model a lesson. I also liked talking with people and seeing how different subject levels use what we learn in their own classes and communities.