New Web Site Brings
African American History to Life



Rosa Parks had her now-famous encounter on a Montgomery, Ala., bus more than 50 years ago, but that story has been part of social studies curricula in public elementary and middle schools only for the past two or three decades. And until recently, those history lessons only told part of the story.


Most school children have been taught that Parks was a poor, working black woman who was too tired to give up her seat on the bus, where blacks were often legally required to ride at the back or give up their seat for a white person. In reality, Parks was part of a well-organized political action movement. “This was not a woman who was tired and did it spur of the moment,” says Kate Wittenberg, manager of E-Publishing Programs at Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS). “She was trained by civil rights organizations, and as soon as this happened, the entire movement got involved, launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”


Now, thanks to Amistad Digital Resource, a joint venture between Columbia University’s Center for Contemporary Black History (CCBH) and CDRS, Rosa Parks’s story—and those of hundreds of other African Americans—are being told in their full scope.


“So many of the stories of these remarkable ordinary people have been buried,” says Manning Marable, Columbia University professor of history and political science, and founder of CCBH. “We’re in danger of losing touch with a central moment, a great moment in American democracy. Amistad Resource is a way to bring those stories back to life.”


Launched last month, Amistad is named in honor of the 1839 uprising on the slave ship Amistad that led to the 1842 U.S. Supreme Court decision freeing Africans who had been kidnapped into bondage. Motivation for the project is the direct result of recent legislation across the country requiring the integration of African American history into social studies curricula in public schools, to provide a more inclusive and accurate record of American history. Such teaching is currently required in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida.


It makes history come alive, said Marable, who tested the product in focus groups. There is a real wow factor, and teachers love it.


Amistad is designed not as a classroom text, but as a multimedia resource for teachers to enhance their knowledge of African American history. It combines hundreds of rare photographs, audio recordings, film clips and interviews with narrative text explaining significant themes and events, such as the brutal lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.


“Now students can see the bus boycott, hear the freedom marchers, watch those images from the past,” Marable says. “That way history lives.”


Amistad Digital Resource was made possible through a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, which paid for the first module of the site covering the Civil Rights era. Columbia is currently seeking funding to develop additional modules that will integrate African American perspectives into the period of American history from slavery through the present.


- Story by Donna Cornachio

© Columbia University