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No law can stop needed critical thinking skills

I never expected to learn about an early black community living in Salem, Ohio, when I purchased the book, “Hearts Beating for Liberty: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest,” hoping to learn more about Emily Rakestraw, Marius Robinson’s wife.

Emily, a Quaker, grew up in New Garden, Ohio, and moved to Cincinnati to teach free black children in the 1830s. There, she met Marius and they got married. Her family disowned her until they later met him and smoothed things over, when he did a speech in New Garden. Marius and Emily moved to Salem where he was the editor of the Anti-Slavery Bugle.

In 1837, Marius was taken out by an angry mob in Berlin, who severed his leg, tarred and feathered him, and left him for dead in Canfield. He survived, and in 1851 he preserved Sojourner Truth’s Akron Speech, publishing it in Salem’s Anti-Slavery Bugle.

By the mid-1840s, Salem had about 1,400 residents, including an African American community of roughly 300 people. Many were farmers, as Ohio had at least 95 black farm settlements across the state between 1800 and 1860. The thriving African American farming community in Salem was on about 2,000 acres of land and had churches, a school and a temperance society.

Today, Salem is 93 percent white and 1.8 percent black.

What happened to our once thriving black farm settlements? Where was the school located? Where was this farm land located? Who owns it now? Is it marked as a historical location? How did Ohio’s statehood or the fugitive slave laws impact these communities, their schools and their churches? Why didn’t we talk about any of this in school? Or did I miss it?

I know we learned about the Underground Railroad in school. I remember taking a walking tour in elementary school past some of the homes that were part of it, having hidden rooms to hide people fleeing slavery. We never discussed the free blacks already living in town and their role in the success of the UGRR. In fact, it was just this past month that I learned about George S. W. Lucas, an African American conductor from Salem.

It’s hard to make sense of things when only part of the story is ever told.

Perhaps that’s what conservative legislative powers want though, to only teach the part of our history that makes us always sound like the “good guys.” Last year, about 15 other states were looking to pass legislation that would either prevent or confuse teachers as to what to teach or not teach in the classroom. This year we have 42 states trying to push bills that prevent teachers from teaching controversial topics. How do you explain what happened to early black farm settlements without discussing race and how black laws were enforced and by whom?

What happened in the past is our past; there is no changing history. However, we can learn way more about our history if we are open to learning about the things that were not talked about when we were in school.

Were angry, white mobs burning barns, churches and schools at these early settlements in Ohio? Yes. Were white people also radical abolitionists that believed in equality for all? Yes, although they were in the minority. Were these white radical abolitionists willing to break the law to help people running from bondage? Yes, and it was very costly, which made it unpopular.

Teaching the truth in 2022 may not be the popular thing to do either, but it is the right thing to do. I intend to teach the truth whether or not HB 322 and HB 327 get passed. I want to stand in the footsteps of radical abolitionists that lived right here in Salem that were willing to take those same chances, putting humanity before the law.

As a teacher who has been deliberately researching my hometown history, I understand I cannot teach the truth unless I am seeking it for myself. When I hear people claiming that opponents of the bill are pushing “indoctrination,” “hatred and division,” and “color-washing history,” I cringe; that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Media literacy skills are an important skill to have. Asking key questions and being able to find credible sources is what we need to be able to do to think critically about the world around us. No law should be made to prevent me from doing that! And no law will.

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

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