If Walls Could Speak: Authentic Learning with Historic Preservation

Updated: Jul 6


Involving students in local authentic learning experiences can bring the past to life while also preserving it for the future.

Our communities are full of special places. Some of these places touch our national conscience while others have special meaning to only a few. Each of them contains stories of individual lives, some famous, most not, that when woven together over time create a tapestry that reveals who we are as a people. Unfortunately, many of these important places have disappeared from our landscape and our memories, leaving their stories, and the lessons learned, untold. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Together we can work to preserve our history for future generations so that they might benefit from learning the lessons of our own lives.

In January of 2009, while serving as the Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Greenville County Schools, I was fortunate to help lead a group of teachers, students and preservation enthusiasts in a project that rescued a historic cabin slated for destruction in order to make way for a new housing development. The cabin, constructed on a backcountry plantation sometime in the 1840s, was originally built for slave families but served as a home for successive families of African-American freedmen farmers from emancipation through the Great Depression. What began as an attempt to save a building developed into an exciting initiative that has inspired a community to rediscover its past.

With gracious funding assistance from The History Channel, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in partnership with Greenville County Schools, and the Greenville County Historic Preservation Commission, we launched a unique historic preservation initiative entitled, If Walls Could Speak: African-American History of Greenville, 1790-1930.

If Walls Could Speak assisted with fulfilling three goals that are critical components of providing meaningful social studies education: 1) the integration of local history into the curriculum wherever it is relevant, 2) the preservation of local history whenever possible, and 3) the creation of partnerships between schools and the community that create authentic learning experiences for all involved.

To make this a truly community effort we used a variety of volunteers to help each step of the way. More than thirty teachers and students from five different middle and high schools assisted with an archaeological survey of the original site, an assessment survey of the plantation’s surviving buildings and the reconstruction and renovation of the cabin itself. Furthermore, over twenty community volunteers not associated with our schools provided assistance and expertise with dismantling and moving cabin, along with its reconstruction. We were also grateful to partner with Dr. Val Littlefield from the University of South Carolina whose students assisted with research on the African-American experience in Reconstruction-era Greenville as part of their coursework.

During the dismantling of the cabin, it was discovered that the frame wall posts were recycled from an earlier cabin, providing the first tangible evidence of an oral tradition that speaks of an earlier cabin built on the same property in the late 1780s shortly after the land was made available for settlement following the end of the American Revolution. This provided an excellent opportunity for students to learn first-hand about corroboration of evidence when attempting to validate historic events, which was much more impactful than simply reading about the process in a textbook.

Through our research, we were also able to identify by name two of the slave families that, at one point, lived in the cabin. Furthermore, we uncovered additional information about of one of these families, the Maxwells, whose struggles and accomplishments as slaves, freedmen, and then land-owning farmers, is providing our students and the community a glimpse into the African-American experience in Greenville during the Reconstruction era and providing a local face and story to an important time in our nation's history.

After being disassembled by a team of community volunteers, the cabin was relocated to the Living History Farm at Roper Mountain Science Center, an educational facility owned and operated by Greenville County Schools for its students, teachers, and the community. The cabin joined twelve other historic structures that were rescued and restored from sites around Greenville County that date from 1795 to 1893. The addition of the new cabin provided a powerful tool for teaching the important yet often overlooked role that African-Americans played during the formative years of our community.

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Since its installation, the cabin is one of the more popular structures on the Living History Farm that is annually visited by close to 100,000 students and community members. The larger of its two rooms is interpreted as a 1870s sharecropper/tenant farmer’s home and is used to teach standards-based lessons on Reconstruction, sharecropping, tenant farming and the role of cotton in South Carolina’s economy. The smaller adjoining room demonstrates the progression of the cabin walls, including a section of wall finished with the original bead board from the 1880s, a section finished with original wall board, and a section revealing the original, recycled wall studs from an earlier cabin. We also have a cut-away ceiling that reveals the original rafters and loft where the children would have slept. Photographs and interpretive panels that detail the preservation process and highlight the importance of such work are displayed here along with numerous artifacts recovered during the archaeological survey.

The lasting impact of this project on our schools and community will be significant as it continues to promote an appreciation for our local history and an awareness of its context within the larger narrative of America's story for years to come.

If we had wanted to, this project could have been completed only by adults, with no students involved. But why would we do that and rob students of the chance to participate in an authentic learning experience that contributes to community in meaningful ways? While this opportunity was a unique one, there are plenty of others that exist in your community. Seek them out and get involved. Your local historic preservation or history societies is a good place to start. Looking for resources? Check out the National Trust as well as the National Park Service's Teaching with Historic Places. You can also get in touch with me and I'll be glad to help.

#livinghistory #socialstudies #authenticlearning #projectbasedlearning #pbl #history #historyteacher

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