Fifty years after Detroit’s 1967 rebellion, conversations about what the events of that summer so long ago mean for our society today have been everywhere.
But kids, who generally prefer cartoons to the evening news, might not have many opportunities to engage with the history of what happened in the city 50 years ago. That is, unless, they to go the James & Grace Lee Boggs School.
The Boggs School is a small charter school on the east side of Detroit that employs a “place-based” education model. Stateside spoke with Julia Putnam, the school’s co-founder and principal, and teacher Ella Stanley about how they’ve approached teaching the events of 1967 to their students.
The school, named after two well-known Detroit activists, serves students from kindergarten through seventh grade. Stanley says embracing the opportunity to teach this local history is the right path because many students are living similar experiences today.
“These kinds of uprisings are happening right now in current events, and kids are exposed to that every single day via the media,” Stanley said. “We immediately think younger kids need to be shied away from the hard stuff, but the reality is they’re dealing with the difficult history right now in their every day life.”
Part of this approach comes out the school’s belief that students should connect with the city in which they live. Fifth through seventh graders visited places that played a part in the rebellion, including the site of the former Algiers Motel and the intersection of 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) and Clairmount Avenue, the location of the rebellion's genesis.
“There was so much they learned just from visually going to the places that they might pass every day and not understand the significance of the history,” Putnam said. “I think a visual picture was very helpful for the kids.”
Often people don’t give kids the space to talk about race, Putnam added, but that’s exactly the sort of conversations the school wants to foster.
“It’s important for kids to grapple with that. They grapple with it anyway, but they often grapple with it in silence and not in community and not in conversation with each other and with adults who can acknowledge that what they’re seeing is true and important,” Putnam said.
Conversations about the events of the summer of 1967 often center around what exactly to call it—a riot, a rebellion, an uprising or an insurrection. As part of their engagement with the topic, students at the Boggs School debated that terminology, and were allowed to use the term they felt was most just in their schoolwork.
Putnam said Grace Lee Boggs, the school’s namesake, didn’t want her own views to be lionized.
“I think it would’ve been easy for us to say, ‘Well, Grace called it a rebellion, that’s what were going to call it, that’s what you need to understand.’” Putnam said. “I was really proud and glad the teachers allowed the kids to take in the information and decide for themselves.”
By studying this material, the students began to strengthen and expand their vocabularies on race and social justice issues, Stanley said.
Though this anniversary year made the 1967 rebellion more salient than normal, Putnam said the school will always teach these important topics.
“I think the exposure of this conversation to the kids is something that can be ongoing, and there are lots of different directions we could take it,” she said. “There’s so much angst and ire surrounding the rebellion and how to move forward, how to move forward together, that this is going to be an ongoing conversation that the teachers can use their creativity and intelligence to incorporate.”
Teachers should be honest, and trust their students to be able to handle this type of material, Putnam said. She urged fellow educators to answer students’ questions fairly and not dumb down information.
“They’re so curious and have so many questions, and to pretend as if we don’t have the same questions as adults, and to pretend that their questions aren’t something worth exploring, is a mistake,” Putnam said.
From July 17-28, Michigan Radio is looking back at Detroit in 1967, the Summer of Rebellion. We’ll explore the issues that led to one of the deadliest civil disturbances in American history and examine why it still resonates in the city today.