African American history
By Susan Shelly
Kami Fletcher, Ph.D., acknowledges that some of the subject matter in a history course she’ll begin teaching this fall is challenging, but she’s confident Albright College students are able and eager to confront uncomfortable truths and embrace learning.
Fletcher, an associate professor of history and co-coordinator of the women’s and gender studies program, will begin teaching “The Rise and Fall of American Slavery” as part of Albright’s new African American Studies minor. The class, which examines people who were involved with the slave trade and how slavery became intertwined with and continues to affect economic, social, political, cultural, educational and medical structures, is filling up quickly.
“I think students are clamoring for a course like this,” Fletcher said. “Students across the country must grapple with the topic of slavery because we’re still living with its effects. If we as a country don’t understand our complete and comprehensive history, we’ll continue to have the problems that we do now.”
Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865, the segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as “Jim Crow” persisted in the American South until the mid-1960s. The laws often denied Blacks the right to vote and forced them to use separate public schools, parks, libraries, trains, buses, restaurants and other facilities, nearly all of which were inferior to those provided to white citizens. The laws also adversely affected economic opportunity for Blacks.
“These pockets of white power didn’t disappear when slavery ended,” Fletcher said. “I think people forget how long Jim Crow lasted.”
The aftermath of Jim Crow continues to be felt throughout American business, education, banking and other institutions, affecting entire populations. Fletcher believes nearly every student could benefit from the African American Studies minor, which is open to non-history majors.
“If an accounting major asks me what their major has to do with slavery, I tell them it has everything to do with it,” she said. “We have to look at the connections between history and the present.”
Students in the “Rise and Fall of American Slavery” class will study diaries and other accounts written by slaves and explore how the institution affected every aspect of the lives of those who were enslaved. They also will join in curated field trips to locations such as Cliveden, an estate that housed seven generations of attorney Benjamin Chew and his descendants — one of the largest slave-holding families in Philadelphia — and the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum, both located in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“Those places are purposeful, and we’ll visit them at a time in the semester that makes sense,” Fletcher said.
Students also will work with contents of the college’s Black Cultural Collection and Resource Center, which houses the entire collection of artifacts and archival records from the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, formerly located in a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Reading.
Fletcher, joined the faculty at Albright College in 2019, having previously served as an associate professor of history, political science and philosophy at Delaware State University. With expertise that includes the areas of African American cemeteries, Black undertakers, death and dying, the Southern plantation and women’s studies, she has authored and edited several related books.
Her research, writing and teaching are not based on blaming or inducing guilt in white people, Fletcher said, merely on increasing understanding of our country’s history and how every person who lives in American is affected by it.
“Really learning about something is always uncomfortable, but I don’t shy away from that,” she said. “I believe that if we all grapple with our history together, we’re going to come out of it stronger.”