Embrace learning accurate history

When John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in 1859, he had a couple of young men from Salem with him, Edwin and Barclay Coppock. Salem also was home to an abolitionist newspaper and homes providing safe haven on the Underground Railroad.

I grew up in Salem and never learned any of these stories. Why wasn’t this in my history classes?

When I first started learning some of the stories that were left out of history class, I felt angry. A fire had been lit inside of me, and I was burning to learn more. Many wanted to label me, saying I was “self-indoctrinated” or “racist towards white people.” It was frustrating and heartbreaking, and at the same time, motivated me to continue reading and learning. I used to loathe history, and now I can’t get enough of it.

Salem was a town full of people actively participating in civil disobedience, hiding fugitives in their homes despite being threatened to have their town burnt down for housing runaway slaves. In response to unjust laws, the townspeople were ready to defend their anti-racist actions with wagons on their sides and guns loaded. Even the banks prepared by taking the money to Canfield. In case the town were burnt down, the money would be safe.

With our legacy, shouldn’t Salem be a place full of people doing anti-racist work and fighting for black lives?

“The man whom Virginia branded as a Traitor and a Murderer, the people of Salem and vicinity have honored as a PATRIOT and an HONEST MAN. Charlestown gave him a gallows; Salem will build him a monument.” — The Anti-Slavery Bugle, Reinternment of Edwin Coppock, Jan. 7, 1860

In order to bring healing, Americans are going to have to face some difficult, historic truths. These will not always be comfortable facts to learn, but there is growth in discomfort. Along the way, they will find new heroes and heroines to celebrate our shared legacy.

Today’s Republicans are trying to ban this learning in the classroom. In proposing bills like House Bill 322 and House Bill 327, Ohio and other states are trying to cover up parts of our history that we would rather sweep under a rug and forget. I refuse to be complicit in maintaining an education that keeps our young people from learning about the powerful moral courage displayed in the face of great injustice that propelled our country forward.

Facing the truth is not always easy. As a teacher and a mother, I know how important it is to provide a safe space and let our youth be heard. Most of the young men that went with John Brown were barely of age; Barclay was the youngest. In school, we should learn about the Coppock brothers, the brave young men that students could actually relate to and connect with.

In 2016, I lost my dad and gained a love for history, something he loved. Today, learning about our history is a way I carry on my dad in spirit. It’s time for Salem and surrounding communities to remember who we once celebrated as local heroes, who engaged in civil disobedience because they believed that black lives mattered. That is part of our true history.

As an educator and seeker of truth, I believe we must take action against HB 327 and HB 322. As an educator, I have pledged to teach the truth. I will not lie to my amazing students at Rayen Early College in Youngstown. I will allow space for critical thinking and rich discussion to take place in my classroom. If it means defying unjust laws, I do so knowing I follow in the footsteps of so many others before me who fought on the right side of history.

Learning an accurate history of my past has allowed me to see my hometown of Salem with new eyes and to embrace the anti-racist spirit of the people that once populated this now conservative town. In teaching truth, we are educating toward greater unity and a history we can all be proud to claim.

Heather Smith is a Salem resident and middle school teacher at Youngstown’s Rayen Early College.


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