Civil rights activist and community organizer Robert Woodson’s 1776 Unites organization was launched early this year as a positive response to the New York Times’ historically inaccurate and increasingly discredited 1619 Project. A key product of the 1776 Unites initiative has recently debuted: ready-made lesson plans for schools that want to teach students the entire, uplifting story about the historical triumphs of African Americans.
1776 Unites brought together a group of African American historians, activists, and community leaders to refute the main thesis of the 1619 Project: that America’s “true” founding was when the first Black slaves were brought to the English colonies, and that racism and slavery are the defining characteristics of the American experience. Woodson called the 1619 thesis “one of the most diabolical, self-destructive ideas I have ever heard.”
Woodson and his colleagues articulated a contrasting vision for 1776 Unites:
[We] uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.
The 1619 Project included an array of curricular materials, which have already been adopted in several large school districts. 1776 Unites has responded by developing their own lessons, each with an uplifting story about African Americans who have overcome diversity to exemplify the American dream. In September, the first of these materials were released, targeted at high school students.
The historical figures highlighted in these lessons include former slave turned California real estate magnate Biddy Mason; Elijah McCoy, the son of escaped slaves who became one of the most influential engineers and inventors of the 19th century; and Robert Woodson himself, an advocate for community uplift and empowerment.
1776 Unites lessons are available for download with a free registration. Each lesson comes with a PowerPoint presentation, links to YouTube videos, vocabulary, questions for discussion and reflection, and a document showing how the lesson aligns with various standards, including those for Advanced Placement, Common Core, the American School Counselors Association, and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Lessons are probably best designed as supplemental activities for American history courses or units for Black History Month, but the social and emotional components also make them appropriate for guidance lessons. The lesson on Robert Woodson would be especially useful in course on civics, economics, and social change, as students are challenged to consider the problems of their own communities and the local human and social capital that can be harnessed to make their neighborhoods better.
The 1776 Unites lessons do not shy away from the grim realities of racism and oppression throughout American history. Students learn about how Biddy Mason had to sue her owner for freedom after he brought her to California where slavery was illegal, and how Elijah McCoy’s parents escaped slavery in Kentucky on the Underground Railroad but had to sojourn for a time in Canada due to the Fugitive Slave Act.
But the focus of the lessons is how these heroes overcame discrimination and adversity. Biddy Mason went on to become one of the richest women in California at the time and one of Los Angeles’ most generous philanthropists. Despite his training as a mechanical engineer, racial discrimination meant Elijah McCoy struggled to obtain work commensurate with this education but eventually gained world-wide recognition for his inventions, including an engine lubricating mechanism that was so widely imitated his own product gave rise to the phrase, “the Real McCoy.”
This emphasis on success in the face of challenge is a key focus of the 1776 Unites initiative itself, which seeks to “celebrate black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase African-Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding ideals.”
Teachers should thoughtfully approach their use of the 1776 lessons to maximize their effectiveness. While each lesson comes with reflection and discussion questions, some questions seem to address comprehension rather than critical thinking. Teachers should consider how they might develop rigorous follow-up activities, writing assignments, or project-based learning tasks that would engage students in deeper reflection on the stories of Mason, McCoy, and Woodson but especially on how they can use these lessons to further empower and liberate their own communities.
Our K-12 schools deserve a much-needed renewal in the teaching of American history, and the 1776 Unites lessons are a welcome contribution. Schools and districts should seek ways to incorporate these materials in their classrooms and look forward to additional K-12 lessons, scheduled to be released soon.