“a man name Fox” was the phrase used by Lt. Colonel Louis Wagner to identify the white civilian killed in a shooting incident at Camp William Penn. The shooter: An African American soldier by the name of Charles Ridley who was the sentry on that fateful night. Through letters and statements from eyewitnesses unfolds a complicated story of what happened on “the eve of July 4th.”
Is your interest piqued? Do you want to know more about “that night”? That’s what I thought when I culled the records looking for something of interest to high school students. The Education department (commonly referred to as ‘LE’) had a student group coming in as part of their NHD Philly projects.
Normally, when we have a student group, we set them up at stations to teach them very specific things. Typically, there is a primary source station (teaches them what a primary source document is), a secondary source station (teach about secondary sources and how to use them to locate additional resources), guided research (with assistance from our Archivist learning to navigate the National Archives’ Online Public Access catalog). If we have the people available, we’ll add an original records station and a photo analysis station of one of our ongoing exhibits.
Since coming on board in October 2012, I’ve worked the guided research station. After countless times with numerous student groups, I was ready for a change. One of the things I love about working in the Education department is that when I have an idea, that idea is supported and allowed to flourish. So many times I’ve heard our Education Specialist say, “that sounds great. You should do that. How can I help?” In conjunction with the Education Specialist, we decided to select records from the Camp William Penn records as a lot of students had topics related to military history and race.
Ultimately, I decided on the ‘Letters Sent’ series of the Camp William Penn records. When I came across the Fox incident, I was…hesitant. Not so much for the content but because there were so many documents I wanted to share and I only had 20 minutes with the kids. I had to ask myself, is 20 minutes enough time to provide historical context of the records, read the records (in cursive too!), and talk about how it relates to the NHD theme of Rights in Responsibilities? And, lastly….can I do all this AND make it interesting?
In many ways, 20 minutes can be long or short depending on the level of student engagement. If the students’ are interested, then 20 minutes flies by and you’re bidding adieu as the next group comes in. Or, it can be painfully long if the students’ aren’t engaged.
At first, when I pulled the records out, the initial reaction was mild. You know high school students, even when they’re excited by something they never want to seem too eager. Risk being labeled a nerd…no! In our 20 minute set, I had the students look at the 1863 letter from Louis Wagner, the interrogation of Charles Ridley, and the statement of James Smith, an eyewitness. First, I read the Wagner’s short letter to the students. I let the contents of the letter inform the kids of what we were discussing. Once I read the line, “shooting incident involving a man name Fox” their ears perked up. For Ridley’s interrogation, I selected a victim,..er I mean willing participant to serve as the interrogator. The lucky student got to read aloud the questions. I would read aloud Ridley’s response. Based on the information we gathered we started to piece together what happened. In this discussion, the students really became vocal. Because not everyone picked up on the same piece of information. They worked together to figure out the story.
Then we read James Smith’s statement….I specifically chose this one because it directly contradicted Ridley’s statement. Nothing like throwing a wrench in the plan. As I read, I looked up to see their faces twist into confusion as they looked to each other. Wait a minute? So what really happened? These were the questions they asked of me. In that minute, I knew I had them. During one session, I had a student say that reading the records was better than reading about something like this in their textbook. All of the students in that group silently nodded. That lead to an impromptu session on the importance of archives and records to history. I certainly didn’t expect to have such a weighty discussion with high school students.
I loved every minute of it! I even had another student in another group ask me if I like what I did for a living. I looked at her and I said confidently, “Yes, especially when I get to work with kids like all of you.” I’ll never really know the extent of how much that workshop impacted those students. I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, I inspired a student or two to become a historian or an archivist.
What I do know is that nothing filled me with more pride than overhearing two students, as they were leaving our facility, discuss the shooting incident of “a man name Fox.” The records made an impression. I made an impression. That’s what it is all about.