The Atlantic

How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South

One veteran Mississippi teacher is forgoing textbooks for the local archives.
Source: Chuck Yarborough / Everett Historical / vkilikov / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Editor’s Note: In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of more novice educators. In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just five years leading a classroom. The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project is crisscrossing the country to talk to veteran educators. This story is the fourth in our series. Read the first one here, the second here, and the third here.

Robert Gleed was only 17 when, a few years before the start of the Civil War, he escaped from a Virginia slave owner. He was caught soon after near Columbus, Mississippi, and sold at an auction, and he didn’t gain his freedom until Union troops arrived in 1865. In the 10 years that followed, Gleed opened a general store; acquired 295 acres of farmland, three city lots, a home; and became one of the first black state senators in Mississippi.

On May 8 of this year, more than 150 years after 437,000 black Mississippians—the majority of the state at the time—gained their freedom, Dairian Bowles, a junior at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, told Gleed’s story. Dressed in a black waistcoat and a white shirt with a high collar, Bowles stood in front of Gleed’s marble tombstone in Sandfield Cemetery, Columbus’s historic burial ground for African Americans.

In front of about 200 visitors, Bowles told of how, a little more, his store, and his home. In 1875, after his term as a state senator, Gleed ran for the position of sheriff. The day before the election, a mob of torch-carrying whites surged through downtown, killing four black men. Gleed survived only because a white friend helped him hide in his well. Soon after, white townspeople claimed that Gleed owed them money, auctioned off his store, and pocketed the profits.

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