There’s something about Ohio

September 15, 2012
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The participants in the 2012 ALBA/Puffin institute, co-sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council. Photo Jack Shortlidge.

Ohio, the quintessential swing state, has long been among the places where the country’s political battle lines are most clearly drawn. This was as true in the 1930s as it is now. As a center of industry, Ohio was hard hit by the Great Depression. Social and racial tensions were palpable. The large urban centers had attracted high numbers of immigrants, as well as migrants from the South, and became strongholds of organized labor; in early 1936, the huge Akron rubber strike made national news. But Ohio also had deep conservative pockets and a significant Catholic population.

It is no surprise, then, that when the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, the conflict immediately caught Ohio’s attention, and held it until its final days in April 1939. Between 1936 and 1938, almost a hundred Ohioans enlisted as volunteers to help defend the Spanish Republic against fascism. They include some of the best-known names on the Lincoln Brigade’s roll. Salaria Kea, the African American nurse, came from Akron. David McKelvy White, who after his return from Spain became executive secretary of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (FALB), was the son of Ohio’s former governor. Paul MacEachron, a sophomore from Oberlin College, sat on the National Executive Committee of the American Student Union. MacEachron died in Spain, as did Sam Levinger, the journalist son of a Columbus rabbi. Carl Geiser came from a German immigrant family in Orrville; he survived a year in one of Franco’s POW camps, about which he later wrote Prisoners of the Good Fight. In early 1937, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which closely followed events in Spain, reported that the pro-Republican documentary, Spain in Flames, had been banned by the Ohio State Board of Censorship. But in December of the same year, The Spanish Earth, made by Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway, avoided similar censorship.

This past June, thirteen Ohio high school teachers of history, Spanish, and English Language Arts gathered on the Oberlin College campus to spend six days discussing the Spanish Civil War, particularly its impact in Ohio. Their objective was to develop curricula based on the Spanish Civil War. Sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council, the Puffin Foundation, and Oberlin College, it was the second ALBA Institute to be held in the Buckeye State.

Led by ALBA’s Sebastiaan Faber, Peter N. Carroll, and James D. Fernández, along with Oberlin’s Geoff Pingree, the institute covered all of the war’s central aspects, alternating lectures, screenings and discussions with small-group work. Relying on primary sources, the participants produced lesson plans ranging from one or two days to six weeks. Their projects ranged from U.S. history units around the Great Depression, isolationism and McCarthyism to beginning and advanced Spanish units focusing on propaganda posters, and honors-level U.S. literature classes about Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The institute also focused on the Spanish Civil War as the cradle not only of modern warfare but also of documentary filmmaking, photojournalism and human rights activism.

The Spanish Civil War lends itself particularly well to interdisciplinary and multicultural work. The war, after all, not only changed world history and international relations decisively, but also left an indelible mark on literature, political thought, and the visual arts of the Western world. One of the guiding principles of the ALBA institutes is the notion that the local and the global are closely intertwined, and that examples from close to home can provide a compelling window into the history of the world at large. With this idea in mind, the Ohio institute zeroed in on the lives of six individuals whose lives were deeply touched by events in Spain, including Geiser, Kea, and McKelvy White.

Last May ALBA sponsored a one-day institute for high school social studies teachers in Hillsborough County, Florida.  Co-hosted by the history department of the University of South Florida, the sessions enabled teachers of world history and U.S. history to explore primary sources available for their classrooms and to develop appropriate lessons. ALBA’s Fraser Ottanelli and Peter Carroll also introduced teachers to related topics of human rights, tracing the story from civilian bombings in the Spanish Civil War through subsequent international crises affecting civilians. This was the fourth session held in Tampa, Florida.

The first ALBA institute for high school teachers was held in New York City in 2007. Ohio is the seventh state to host ALBA, after New York, Florida, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Washington. This fall, ALBA will offer its second one-day program to high school teachers in Alameda County, California.

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