Summer 1959

May 1960.

An American family leaves the Belgian Congo after five years in the African interior.

During their time in the Congo, they built schools, designed hospitals and nursed the sick. And now, with the local Congolese agitating for independence and the Belgian government pulling out, the family was leaving as well.

Hum, yeah. And . . . so what?

Digging the shoes!

These are just some old pictures and travel documents from some random family, right?

Well, actually, not so random. The family picture above is my mom, dad, older sisters and brother. My mom, now 80, was going through some boxes of stuff and was getting ready to toss them out.

Of course, the history geek in me thought that was a bad idea. Some of this stuff, I had seen before. But the plane tickets, some of the photos, other assorted maps and travel documents were new to me.

Dad's plane ticket from Kikwit, Congo to Wichta, Kansas

Dad's ticket from Kikwit, Congo to Wichita, Kansas

I especially like the menu card from one of the in-flight meals. The cover is a stylized painting of downtown Amsterdam. Very formal and it actually looks pretty tasty! (Look close enough and you’ll discover in the fine print that “several of KLM’s chefs” are members of a 700 year old society of culinary masters. Nice!)

In-flight menu. Drinks were on a separate card

In-flight menu, drinks were listed on a separate card

Okay . . . interesting documents. But, again . . . so what?

I think that sometimes we forget how powerful primary sources can be.

Especially . . . especially those that have a personal and emotional connection to our students. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using primary documents that came with your textbook, or you got from the National Archives or even those that show up in some of those cheesy jackdaw collections.

But think about how powerful history becomes when it’s studied with documents generated by students themselves.

That’s the “so what.”

The documents posted here mean something to me. I know the people in the picture. I’ve asked my dad about the giant snake. There’s already an emotional connection built-in . . . what I need is a teacher to help me see the connection to a bigger world, to help me ask bigger questions:

Congolese women, child and baby

Congolese women, child and baby

  • Where is the Belgian Congo? Why did the family have to leave? Why was the Belgian government leaving? Were they in charge? Why? Was the US involved with Belgium pulling out? What influence did the USSR have in the Congo? What happened after the Belgians left? How do the events in the Congo during 1960 impact current events? Was that genocide in Rwanda connected with the Congo?

So . . . ask your kids to share their own personal primary sources with you.

Old photos, goodies from family vacations, things from their grandparents, letters, just about anything can be used to generate conversation and hook kids into asking and answering historical questions.

We just have to find and share the connections.

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