Duluth History Teacher Jumps Into Civil War Controversy

Johnny Kauffman / WABE

This story is part of WABE and American Graduate’s Advancing Atlanta: Education series. For more stories, click here.

The Civil War can be an emotional issue in the South to this day. The massacre last year at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina was a painful and tragic reminder. From Confederate flags, to carvings on Stone Mountain, to statues at the Georgia Capitol, the ideological battle still rages.

Amidst all of this, Civil War history is still a required subject in Georgia schools.

“I think Lincoln would have been an ace on Twitter,” Duluth High School U.S. history teacher David Kendrick told his class one morning. “Because, those 140 characters, I think he would have done very well and people would have been like ‘whoa‘ and known exactly where he was going.”

Kendrick is comparing the 2016 presidential race to the 1864 race between Abraham Lincoln and Union General George McClellan.

There were lots of insults back then too, just not on Twitter, Kendrick tells the class.  

“What’s our main thing that some of these candidates are doing to make them seem better than the other guy?” he asks the students.  

“Mudslinging,” one shouts out.

Kendrick has won multiple awards for his teaching of the Civil War, including one from the Civil War Trust. He has a bushy gray beard, and looks like he could have fought in the war himself.  

Kendrick’s ancestors were Confederate soldiers, but when he dresses up for social studies and civil war conferences, he prefers the likes of Union General William Sherman, who is blamed for burning Atlanta.

  He says that can throw off some of his fellow Southerners.

“One of the biggest compliments I can ever get is the kids don’t know what side I stand on politically,” he said. “Because I’ll bash them both.”

He wants students to decide for themselves. But first he has to get them interested.

Jaida Mitchell is a student in Kendrick’s classroom.

“I’m not like really a history person but that’s the only thing I actually do like, is learning about the Civil War,” Mitchell said. “Like everything else it’s like it just goes through one ear and out the other.”

The awards Kendrick is most proud of come from student nominations, from students like Mitchell. 

“I know a bunch of stuff I did not ever know before,” Mitchell said. “I can actually have a conversation with someone and prove them wrong. You know, like have a debate about something.”

But when those debates happen around the dinner table in the South, it can spur parents into action.

Kendrick say he’s been called to the principal’s office to talk to parents who say he’s indoctrinating their children. 

But it’s not just the parents. He’s had students challenge him.

“I know that I have had kids that sat in my class and purposefully wore their rebel flag shirts,” Kendrick said.

He said the biggest issues came up at his first teaching job in more rural, white Madison County, where one student pushed the limit.

“To the point of using the N-word where my para-pro and I both had to throw the kid out of the room,” Kendrick said. “We were fortunate that I had a black assistant principal who lived through the sixties, and so anytime they wanted to pull that I would bring Dr. Hunter in and say … Would you like to repeat what you said?”

But most times, Kendrick says he likes when students let him know they disagree:

“It’s fun when a student challenges me like that.”

But that doesn’t keep him from teaching the truth, he says, and he calls claims that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery “laughable.”

“And I don’t ever say this war was about slavery. But I do it to the point where they can understand that everything that precipitated it – it’s about slavery.”

For Mr. Kendrick, what’s worked in teaching the Civil War in the South is jumping into the controversy, knowing his stuff, and loving it.

This story is part of American Graduate, Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.