HEALING A NATION: Lettie Shumate talks history, anti-racism and progressing forward

Local historian and anti-racist educator Lettie Shumate remembers seventh-grade social studies well. Specifically, she was learning about continents worldwide, and each time Africa was discussed, overtones of poverty, mistreatment and heartache seemed to be prevalent. When it came time to choose a country for her class project, she landed on Botswana. Independent research taught her that Botswana was a flourishing country—a Mecca of resources for other African countries, even.

“It was far more than what the white-washed history books had described,” she says.

It was Shumate’s first encounter with history in a way that piqued her interest. She couldn’t predict at the time she would have a career as an historian; back then the subject matter bored her. The very abridged information coming out of the McGraw-Hill textbooks in primary school felt like a hoodwink — perpetuating false narratives, like soft-shoeing slavery by indicating Africans “migrated” to America.

“Aside from the fact those textbooks are just wrong a lot, they also teach timelines and sub-timelines with only a few talking points,” Shumate says. “They never go deep into the context of an event, person or place. Black history during the Civil War was just Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. We don’t learn that after enslavement, slaves are in fact not free. Black people couldn’t move about how they wanted; black men were seen as rapists and women as jezebels and prostitutes, which were perpetuated by laws like vagrancy, Black codes and Jim Crow — all made to protect white society.”

When Shumate got to Brunswick Community College, where she received her associate’s degree, her passion for history gained footing. A professor who didn’t use textbooks or PowerPoint approached it as storytelling instead. “He brought it to life for me and I just soaked in everything,” she says. Shumate transferred to UNCW in 2008, and an inspiring department of history professors helped her thrive: Dr. Harris, Dr. Pollard, Dr. Fonvielle and Dr. Townend, among others. She minored in political science and, with Dr. Harris as her mentor in history, landed on a concentration that excited her: Black American history.

“Dr. Harris taught all-things Black history,” Shumate praises. “He taught the bigger picture — not just dates and times because history’s not in a vacuum; it’s not linear. Historians don’t just study or write about one event without looking at everything before and after it. Take the Black Panther party, for instance: It requires primary research, which means research from the actual time, but it doesn’t just start with the party in 1966. It would also point back to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the mid-1800s and Marcus Garvey in the 1930s. . . . My professors would teach us to learn everything between the lines, not just in the books but reading the footnotes and all the research the writers did, and everything else that connected, to always go deeper. It’s a neverending hole, really.”

Shumate eventually graduated with her masters in history from UNCW in 2015. She intended to teach in a school setting; however, the lack of jobs in Wilmington didn’t help her pursuits, so she ended up working at an eye doctor’s office and then at PPD as a project assistant. While at PPD, she took her lunch breaks at Cape Fear Community College to teach world history as an adjunct professor. It was a rigorous schedule she kept up with for over a year.

Then UNCW began a new program in conflict management and resolution, which delves into therapeutic ways to help people talk about grievances and trauma. Shumate decided learning how to unload the aftereffects left on American systems and its citizens from racism would complement her knowledge as an historian. She decided to return to school for her second masters, quit PPD and took a part-time position at Wilmington Center for Innovation, Recreation and Education (WIRE) afterschool program.

“It was a lot of hard work that almost broke me,” she admits. Yet, in May 2020 Shumate graduated with her fourth degree.

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(Encore, 7/8/20)