July 19, 2021
Local History Connects Past with Present
It’s history repeating itself in the best way possible. This spring, Allie Kyff ’14 took to the front of an Upper School history class to teach much like her father, Upper School history teacher Rob Kyff, had done decades earlier. Dressed all in black with a chunky pair of combat boots, Kyff looked much like the KO student she was just a few years earlier but now armed with a deep and wide knowledge of Connecticut history.
Kyff is a museum educator at downtown Hartford’s Old State House who engages students in a civics program called “Three Branches” and runs the social media platforms for the organization. Earlier at the State House, she helped curate an exhibit about The Amistad, the famous slave ship that was mutinied by enslaved people from Mendeland who successfully petitioned the courts to grant their return to Africa. Additionally, Kyff facilitates programs at The Mark Twain House. While at Connecticut College, she found an affinity for American history and double majored in English and American Studies, with a concentration in expressive arts and cultural studies. Her thesis, on the public memory of slavery in Connecticut, centered on the story of The Amistad and a slave narrative by Connecticut native Venture Smith.
Much of Kyff’s work is driven by the truth, uncovering the multifaceted, sometimes brutish sides of Connecticut’s history. Prior to college, Kyff had an admittedly one-dimensional view of American history. “I thought the North was completely heroic, and the South was all the slave owners upholding racist policies,” she said. “That’s not the case. One of the surprising things I learned was that Black men were actually allowed to vote in Connecticut until 1818. When the state passed a new constitution, it explicitly stated that Black men could not vote. Connecticut disenfranchised Black voters and didn’t give the vote back until the 1870s. When you peel back the layers, there’s a lot out there that we don’t see.”
Over the summer of 2020, former Director of Equity Joan Edwards and the Upper School history department discussed ways of integrating equity work with the School’s strategic vision. KO’s recent strategic plan calls for the School to expand student learning beyond the campus and partner with people and institutions in the Greater Hartford area. As the curriculum draws deeper and more relevant connections into the local community. Edwards suggested that Kyff could be a valuable resource for KO’s history department due to her expansive knowledge of local Connecticut history. Her expertise was a natural fit for a school that sees “the city as our campus.”
David Baker ’04, Upper School history department chair, said that incorporating Kyff’s work grew in part to a response from alumni who asked that KO do a better job of teaching a fuller picture of American history. “I thought ‘What does it mean to go local?’ And, then I realized we had an alum who’s an amazing historian whose job it is to study Hartford’s history,” Baker said.
Baker and Kyff had a conversation about developing a partnership, and Kyff submitted a proposal to facilitate classroom lessons and discussions. Additionally, KO was awarded a local Title 4 grant for professional development, so Kyff’s programs also serve as training for the faculty to engage with the students as well as to enlighten the student population. With Kyff’s connection, she introduced the school to period actors who performed virtual historical narratives, including the story of Sarah Margru, a child on The Amistad. “We wouldn’t have made that link without Allie. She’s grounded us in the history department. There’s a lot here we can do,” Baker said.
Working with Edwards and the Upper School history department, Kyff developed a curriculum that brings marginalized stories in history to the center, which are shared at advisee group meetings and in class. The material is organized by theme: “Triumph Stories not Known,” “Barriers to Thriving, “Sea Change through Activism,” and “Feel Good Narratives That Are Complicated.” Kyff distills the material into short videos that capture the attention of the students and serve as a great jumping-off point for KO’s history teachers to delve deeper into their classwork. Per the history department’s vision, Allie uplifts Black voices, all the while crafting the videos from a local perspective. Accompanying the videos is a set of thought-provoking questions designed to spur challenging and honest conversations among the students about race.
“The bottom-up history is important to know – the stories of women and the slaves – of the people who were in the margins,” Kyff said. “All my professors in college had that school of thought. History moves society to be more accepting. To me, slavery is the country’s original sin. It’s the most important part of the American story.”
Upper School history teacher Katie McCarthy agreed that telling the stories of underrepresented people is important. “When I think about what my role as a history teacher is,” she said, “it is to provide students with an understanding of historical events so they can put today into context. In order to be able to really do that, one needs to not only tell the story that has always been told but empowering students to ask new questions and finding new voices to get a more complete understanding of the era. When I think about this year, in particular, it’s really about uplifting the voices of people whose stories have been buried or misrepresented, and oftentimes they are black and brown voices in our country’s history.”
Kyff’s work dovetails with an essential element in the Upper School history curriculum, the Witness Stones Project, which is taught in the junior year. This is not history in a bubble or knowledge for knowledge’s sake but helping students make sense of the world around them. For instance, in one class, the students researched local enslaved persons, one known by the single name “Prut” and the other Peleg Nott, who was a Connecticut Black governor and Revolutionary War hero. As part of this process, KO students have researched church records, runaway slave ads, and original source documents. They have interviewed ministers, teachers, and town leaders. They have made connections to today that involve racial bias, including police brutality, housing and school inequalities, and mass incarceration. Regina Miller ’22 and Aliza Sadiq ’22 petitioned the West Hartford Town Council to rename New Street in Blue Back Square after the aforementioned Nott. By examining historical documents and taking a closer look at manifestations of racism today, KO students experience an honest and humbling reckoning between our past and present and are making an impact.
During a ceremony at the First Church of Christ Congregational in West Hartford Center in 2020, Jocelyn Ram ’20 reflected on the impact of the lesson. “This project pushed our class discussions to new levels as we were able to talk about both historical and modern issues of race in a way where everyone’s voice was respected,” she said. “We were pushed to talk about subjects that were difficult to talk about. But these are the conversations students need to have with one another. Slavery, being one of the hardest topics to teach and learn in the history curriculum, could either be skimmed over in the textbooks, or we could dive in deep. Our class definitely took that dive, and every time we left the classroom, we were all pondering over new ideas about what we can do to make a difference.”
Kyff feels the younger generation is ready to wrestle with our country’s past. “I think in Gen Z there is a hunger to know more about race and how it plays out in our history,” she said.
During her lesson with the Upper School history students, she peppered the class with questions about their knowledge of the city of Hartford, explained the earlier roots of redlining, and challenged the students to interrogate the information presented to them.
“What do you notice about the census for the people who lived in his area?” she asked the class as she pointed to an 1850 document describing the people inhabiting the area in what is currently now Bushnell Park.
The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, was part of an urban renewal project that displaced the original landowners to the north of Hartford and near the river. Later generations of these people didn’t have the same access to Bushnell Park due to its distance from their neighborhoods. Several students noted that most of the individuals on the census were recorded as minorities and lower-skilled laborers.
“Who has the best and easiest access to these great public spaces?” Kyff asked the students.
Kyff pointed out more recent history from the 1930s Home Owners Loan Corporation developed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt so that families could afford a down payment for a home. The HOLC gave banks a framework to decode which people were worthy of loans. Neighborhoods were ranked by color code from most desirable (green) to blue, to yellow, to least desirable (red). Looking at a color-coded land survey from 1936, she noted two areas in Hartford: B5 in the north end, ranked as blue, and C9 in the south end, ranked as yellow. The two areas were equally comparable – mostly two-family homes, 15-20 years old in good condition. The only notable difference between the neighborhoods was the racial composition of the neighborhood. The write-up on the south end neighborhood stated: “The Negro families are confined to Roosevelt Street. Lenders suggest caution.”
Kyff hopes that her webinars and class discussions provide a context for the students to explore the world we are inhabiting now as well as thinking about it from a human perspective. “I really enjoyed teaching the class, although it did feel weird having so much authority, especially since a few years ago I was just sitting in their shoes,” she said. “I want the students to look at their own communities and think about what do we do with the information and what conclusions we can make.”
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