The Newark Riots and the Challenge of Teaching with Online Primary Sources

For the past two days my U.S. History II class has been considering the social and economic factors that set the stage for the 1967 riots in Newark, NJ.


This is a challenging topic for me to teach, as I feel extreme pressure to do justice to all parties involved.  Newark holds a special place in my heart. My great-grandparents lived near downtown Newark on Broad Street in the 1920s.  My parents lived in the Central Ward when they were first married, until they bought a house in nearby Irvington.  I lived in the East Ward (Ironbound) for most of the past 15 years, and I was married in Newark.   I have watched as the city fights its way back to greatness.

But for most Americans, the 1967 riots still define the city even nearly fifty years later.  For many North Jersey suburbanites, there is a a commonly-held assumption about the city:  Newark was a great city…that is, until the riots.  (Even current Governor Chris Christie’s recounts this narrative.  His family was living in Newark until they moved to suburban Livingston, NJ–coincidently, the town where I teach–after the riots.)  But to be fair, to teach a lesson on the Newark riots requires inverting this popular assumption–to  be willing to consider that the riots didn’t lead to the decline of Newark, but rather, that the decline of Newark led to the riots.

What further complicates and simultaneously adds to the relevance of this lesson is the very recent unrest in Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore, which have reignited tense discussions about race, social and economic inequality in America’s cities, and the police.

So with all this–where (oh, where) to begin?

Lesson 1: The Other Postwar America

I decided to use the first lesson to create a picture of “the other [postwar] America,” that is, the social and economic challenges facing African Americans in Northern cities, reactivating previous studies of the Great Migration and the Interstate Highway Act, explaining concepts like deindustrialization, “white flight,” urban renewal, and bank redlining.

(I found a fantastic interactive Newark Demographic map created for the 40th anniversary of riots in 2007.  Unfortunately, it can be a little fussy and the map is disappointingly small.  However, in a 1:1 environment I would probably be more likely to use it.)

Lesson 2: The Newark Riots

Part I:  The Arrest of John Smith

Last year I used this trailer from the PBS POV film Revolution ’67 to introduce the different perspectives on the riots.

This year, instead, I gave my students an excerpt from How Newark Became Newark: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American City by Brad R. Tuttle (2007), pp. 142-43.

I asked my students to compare the account given by the arresting officers in the official police report to the testimony given by John Smith after he was arrested.  (I also provided students with a concise timeline of the unrest.)

After comparing the two accounts, we discussed the twin challenges of perspective and reliability when analyzing contradictory accounts of an event, and the importance of corroborating evidence in generating historical conclusions.  It was a lively discussion and an effective way to have students understand the spark that ignited the tensions that summer.

Part II:  The Dead

Next, I distributed two primary source documents I obtained from’s Newark ’67 website.  The first was a list of fatalities drafted on July 21, 1967–less than a week after the riots started (The entire document is downloadable here as a PDF file).

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The second document I distributed was a September 27, 1967 report of the 22 gunshot fatalities and the caliber of bullet responsible for each death (downloadable here as a PDF file).  I instructed my students to compare the two documents and generate a list of observations, questions, or comments to discuss. (Later I found still another document that I would considering adding to this lesson. Page 138 of the August 1967 “Report to Action” featured a table of 26 homicides during the riots.  Maybe next year I will divide students into groups of three and have them analyze the three documents together.)

My students had so many thoughtful questions and made so many insightful observations. Immediately, several were surprised to learn that most of those killed during the riots appeared to be black residents of Newark.  One student also noted that the first document suggested that snipers were responsible for the deaths of two police officers, but the second document stated that the bullet that killed one officer had no rifling marks.  We speculated as to what this meant and if it challenged the presence of a sniper.

I know little to nothing about guns or ammunition, so I had proactively spoken with a colleague about the nature of the bullets found and the significance of rifling marks, or the lack thereof.  This discussion of calibers and bullets gives rise to another aspect of using primary sources:  specific background knowledge is often needed in order to accurately interpret primary sources.

The Take-Away:

Overall, It was important for my students to understand that primary sources need to be examined with critical eyes, because sometimes the closer we are to an event the less accurate or complete our primary sources may be.  Nonetheless these sources are still useful in illustrating the confusion, contention, and frustration that must have been at least part of the experience of those who lived through those dark days in 1967.

The history of the Newark riots is a complicated one.  Back in 2006 I had the privilege of hearing Rutgers University’s distinguished history professor Dr. Clement Price give a keynote speech in Newark on New Jersey History Day.  His words have remained with me since then, and I thought of them when I heard about Professor Price’s untimely passing in November. Dr. Price said that 1967 in Newark meant different things to different people.    For many Americans, the events in Newark were riots; for others it was a civic disturbance; for some it was a pogrom; and, still for others, it was a revolution.  I, humbly, add to this that if you are old enough to remember the Newark in the late 1960s, you may have your own interpretation to add to his list.  Nevertheless, however you chose to characterize the events of July 1967 in Newark, one fact remains:  the city was never the same again.




Reconstruction and African American Lives

My students are currently examining the experiences of African Americans during Reconstruction. So today I began class with a five-minute warm-up activity using these maps of the Barrow Plantation in Georgia in 1861 and 1880.

Barrow Plantation

The goal of this activity is to anticipate how Reconstruction changed the lives of African Americans.  In the main activity, students will examine in depth several related primary sources including Freedman’s Bureau reports, Congressional testimony by a former slave, and post-Civil War labor contracts.

(I used a paper copy of the map – but after class (of course!) found this awesome interactive version online from the McGraw-Hill site.  I will definitely switch to this version for next year.)

While debriefing the changes on the map between 1860 and 1880, I asked my students if they could discern which people on the land were formerly slaves from the Barrow plantation. We got into an interesting discussion about the naming of slaves and last names.  I mentioned the popularity of surnames like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln among newly-freed African American men and women.  But when I had mentioned the popularity of names like Freeman and Freedman, to indicate this newly-won status, I wondered out loud if this was the origin of actor Morgan Freeman’s last name.

Curious that night I did some digging.  I had seen excerpts from Henry Louis Gates’ TV mini-series African American Lives, but I hadn’t remembered if Freeman was interviewed.  A quick Google later and there he was.

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African American Lives 2 at minute 2:57-8:00

Professor Gates traced Freeman’s family back to his great-great-grandmother, a slave name Ceeley who had borne several of the children of a white worker on the plantation. Gates tried to determine the nature of their relationship by examining property records, census data, and grave markers.  I found this five-minute clip really useful to show the complicated nature of race relations in the American South and equally useful in illustrating the process of historical research.

My students continued to work energized by the “personal connection” they had now made with nearly 150-year-old historical documents.  (I even heard a “that’s pretty cool” from a struggling student.) The primary sources they analyzed came to life as they thought of Morgan Freeman’s great-great-grandmother, Ceeley.

This lesson within a lesson was a great success.  And, in my quest to find the answer to my own historical question, I modeled the importance of intellectual curiosity.  (Call it a teachable moment.)

Overall, I recognize that finding a personal connection is what made history first come alive for me.  I continue to use primary sources to bring that same excitement and energy to my classroom.

Other Related Links:

The blackest name in America (Daily Mail UK – Feb 2011)

Surnames Used by African Americans (The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation)

Interesting for an English or American Studies teacher:  “NPR on ‘Freeman’: A Liberated Slave in Search of a Family”

Finding African Americans on the 1870 Census