The Civil War begins

My daughter, who is 12, said, "I want to learn about the Civil War."

And I said, "Ick."

It wasn't my best Homeschooling Mom moment.

Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn

My daughter tried again, "I really want to know about the Civil War."

And I said, "Sure, of course. Let's do it."

As much as I love history, I have had no fascination for our nation's Civil War. I also admit I don't know much about the Civil War. (Gee, I wonder if there is a connection between my ignorance and my disinterest.)

I want my children to know more about the Civil War than I do. I want to know more myself! So, here we go, off into unknown territory for us.

Civil War battle map...and my battle to keep the cats off our school stuff.

Since I happened to have Frederick Douglass' narrative handy, I pulled the book off the shelf and asked my daughter to start her Civil War studies by reading it. She is reading only a couple of chapters a week, and at first she was quiet about what she read. Normally I ask for written or oral narrations from her, but with this topic, I decided to back off from the narrations requirement.

Today we took a walk along the river, and she spent a good portion of our walk together telling me about what she is reading in Frederick Douglass' book and telling me what she thinks about the readings. Of course I'm moved by Douglass' story, but I'm also moved by the maturity I'm seeing in my child. Growing up is a good thing.

As my daughter began reading Douglass, I hunted down more books and field trip ideas.

Subway mural, Frederick Douglass Blvd, Manhattan

I heard about Weeksville now and then over the years, and now seemed like the time to make a field trip there with my kids.

By the end of the field trip on a hot, hot day last week, all I wanted to do was learn more about this era of history in our nation.

Weeksville was a community of free African-Americans created before the Civil War in the farmland of Brooklyn. Slavery was abolished in New York State at the time, but a free black man could vote only if he owned $250 worth of land.

Some successful African-American businessmen bought tracts of land from Dutch-American farmers in Brooklyn and then sold small plots to fellow African Americans. With enough land, they had a voice through their votes. And, soon an entire thriving community grew.

I knew nothing about this history until our field trip last week.

Weeksville homes on an old Native American trail.

As the years went by, the New York City eventually grew around Weeksville. By the 1960s, it was an urban area, and not the nicest urban area. The government came in and tore down blocks of buildings to make room for housing projects. Some people in the community objected that their history was being torn down.

But their voices were not heard. "What's Weeksville? Where's Weeksville?" was the reply they received.

So, a group from the neighborhood signed up for classes at the local college to learn how to do historical research themselves. They researched Weeksville and searched for it on their own. (When I heard this, my homeschooling heart burst with excitement.) With so many buildings already gone, they wanted to find something from the original Weeksville but weren't first.

Weeksville Heritage Center, with housing project in background.

A gentleman in the group happened to have a pilot license, and he took a plane in the air to search for buildings. He found the row of houses in the pictures above. The houses were built on a Native American trail. As the street grid of the city grew, the trail never made it to some maps. According to the decision-makers looking at the maps, the houses didn't exist.

But the houses did exist - because a group of people made the effort to build them for a positive reason. And the houses still exist - because a group of people made the effort to save them for a positive reason. I heard their voices - and saw their actions - on our visit to the place.

Subway mural, Utica Avenue

I've avoided studying the Civil War because the topic is unpleasant, and frankly, I find it depressing. I know I'm not unique in finding war and slavery depressing topics, that's for sure. But, I find strong leadership uplifting. So, with the people who founded, lived in, and saved Weeksville as an inspiration to us, we will study the Civil War.


  1. Wow, I'm letting my oldest read your post. We just studied Civil War; this will be fascinating for her. Especially, since we've taken a trip to N.Y., too bad at the time we didn't know about this place. One of her favorite books about this era were The Perilous Road by William Steele, Gettysburg by Mackinlay Kantor and on a lighter read but still talked about a slave boy heading west right before the Civil War: The Story of Jonas by Maurine Dahlberg. For her younger siblings we enjoyed many pictures books, that I know my oldest enjoyed too. Our spine was Lincoln's World.

  2. This is amazing... Your post and then Jenny's comment. Your children are amazing, and they surely have 'stute mommas! :)

    CM in the City, I would have had the same reaction than you. I too find civil wars (we had one right before World War II in Spain) hard to study, but children need that. I guess it's part of their process and forming relationships with human kind, their nation roots, and an attempt to understand human nature and conflict.

    You two are a wealth of knowledge for future years!

    I enjoyed your pictures and your narration. This is new to me, and I'm getting wonderful glimpses through you.

  3. I'm surprised I didn't post a comment on this! I did read it when you posted it :)
    I love the Civil War era. Although definitely not one of our best hours, it is a great time period and major event to study.
    I would love to be able to study history they way you have here... visiting places, see things. Books are great (love them) but some times it is being there that really brings it to us.
    Hope your weekend is peachy :) (I know it is just Thursday night...but getting a head start *wink*)

  4. All three of you, since writing this post, I'm becoming more and more interested in the time period and discovering connections that I didn't know existed. And, oh yeah, I think the kids are learning stuff too. :)

    Silvia, it's was Picasso's painting of Guernica that made me understand how powerful art could be. It was the first painting that moved me emotionally. I learned about it when I was in high school.