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Image of a map of Clarendon, South Carolina along with information on the farmland in the area
Important farmlands map, Clarendon County, South Carolina. United States Soil Conservation Service and South Carolina Land Resources Conservation Commission, 1981

Using Maps of Historical Locations to Understand Historic Events

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This post is by Tyron Bey, the 2023-2024 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

In the November/ December issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features a map titled “Important farmlands map, Clarendon County, South Carolina.” Created by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service in 1981, it shows what land could be used as farmland with additional agricultural treatment and reveals very limited urban areas. The article suggests that exploring the physical geography of places where historical events occur through maps like this one may help students begin to understand the stories behind local communities’ contributions to key moments in U.S. history.

For example, becoming familiar with the geography of Clarendon County, SC, may help students better understand the 1952 court case Harry Briggs Jr. et al. v. R.W. Elliott, chairman, et al. that challenged segregation and was one of the cases included in the Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, KS (1954). In this case, after a student drowned in the Lake Marion Reservoir, Black parents in Clarendon County organized to sue the school system for unequal access to transportation and quality school facilities.

We suggest that before using a map such as this to connect to or teach about desegregation, you might first ask students to explain the route and the method they use to come to school daily. Some examples will be walking, being dropped off by parents, using public transit, or riding the school bus.

Next, team students in groups of three or four. Share the featured map and ask students to analyze it, prompted by questions selected from the Library of Congress Teachers Guide: Analyzing Maps. Ask them to think about which locations might be the best places to live or the best sites to locate community services such as schools. Encourage students to make observations, describe what they see on the map, and identify what looks strange or familiar. Then, invite students to reflect on why this map was made.

Encourage them to use their recorded observations, reflections, and questions in a class discussion. Challenge students to identify what they see in the geography of Clarendon County that could cause impediments to school access, such as:

  • What would happen to trans­portation networks if a hard rain or other weather phenomena struck the county?
  • What human-caused catas­trophes could exist in this county?
  • Is there equal access to the highways in Clarendon County? What makes you say that?

Share information about how Clarendon County’s geography played a role in the Briggs case. Now equipped with back­ground knowledge, students may have additional questions that can drive their indepen­dent research into the history of desegregation. Possible topics to explore include:

  • Further details of what happened in Clarendon County that led to the Briggs case;
  • The roles that clergy, community groups, PTAs, or the NAACP played in the desegregation court cases;
  • The role that geography played in the court cases;
  • The 14th Amendment;
  • Civil rights challenges facing their communi­ties today and the role geography might play.

As students conduct additional research, they may want to:

If you try these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students, tell us about your experience!

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Comments

  1. Thank you, Tyron Bey, for featuring maps as an integral part of a social studies lesson and not just a location flashed on a projected map. Geography is part of the formula that will enhance students’ knowledge of any historical happening. It answers that question of “Why is it where?”

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