Civil Rights: Educational Resources from The Henry Ford Museum

Sitting on the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum still sends a chill down my spine as the heavy weight of intolerance, ignorance, hope and justice intermingle in a perpetual tug of war for ascendency.

It is a small bus, much smaller than the city buses of today. Compact. Maybe just a couple of dozen seats from the front to the back. Close enough to hear snippets of conversations and to wonder how such a small bus and diminutive person could make history.

Rosa Parks Bus from The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn Michigan, Curator’s Choice: American Democracy and Civil Rights Digital Collection

It is just one of the many wonderful images on the Henry Ford Museum website and the special digital collection of images and explanations of the historical significance of the artifact in their Curator’s Choice: American Democracy and Civil Rights

While textbooks often display certain images and contain a summary of the historical events, it is difficult to appreciate the significance of these events because they are separated by time (in historical chronology) and space (in the textbook.)

This curated set links together various items from their impressive collection thematically, American Democracy and Civil Rights, which adds an essential context to these artifacts.

To see an engraved copy of the Declaration of Independence commissioned by John Quincy Adams, followed several images later by a restroom sign indicating which restrooms American citizens were legally mandated to use, based on the color of their skin is to truly understand the fraught nature of both democracy and civil rights.

The well chosen items are a study in contrast as is our democratic experiment itself, where disparate and opposing voices clamor for expression.

It is the flag crafted by Alice Paul which asks to Woodrow Wilson, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman’s Suffrage,” as well as the postcard signed by Miss Florence Hoagland of 44 Monroe Street who disagreed with the precepts of the woman’s suffrage movement.

From the curator’s comments on the website: “During the struggle for women’s voting rights in the early 20th century, many men and some women strongly opposed the notion of women voting. These “anti-suffragists” argued that women were both physically and emotionally incapable of dealing with the strains of politics. The Miss Florence Hoagland who signed this card apparently agreed with these assessments.”

The Henry Ford website, Curator’s Choice: American Democracy and Civil Rights

Almost exactly one century later, America is still looking for its first female president. While my intention is not to espouse my particular political beliefs, it is clear that the notion that women should vote and compete politically is no longer questioned.

Today the New York Times made the interesting choice, to endorse not one, but two women to be considered the Democratic candidate for the presidency, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

On this same day, there is a pro-gun rally occurring in Virginia who among the group of peaceful Americans who support the right to bear arms, is attracting a group who are potentially advocating for a race war. Thankfully, this notion is being forcefully repudiated by individuals of both the GOP and the Democrats.

Again, this is not to cast aspersions on this particular event or its members. Rather, It is just another reminder that change occurs, not always for the better, neither democracy nor civil rights are a foregone conclusion, and that it is the efforts of all citizens who must tirelessly work to create the nation in which all of us can be proud to call home.

Using the digital collection as a creative and informative resource to help our high school students develop essential background knowledge and real world curriculum connections about Democracy and Civil Rights, can be an invaluable tool as we try to inspire our students to understand the nuanced and complex world in which they live.

Awareness of the multiple voices of our nation’s story is a necessary foundation for true understanding and tolerance.

Featured Image: The Henry Ford Museum, Curator’s Choice: American Democracy and Civil Rights, Portrait of Frederick Douglass, Circa 1860

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