A momentous debate will return to the Old State Capitol building this spring: to secede or not to secede?
It’s part of a new course at Kentucky State University starting Tuesday that shows students and community members what it was like to live in Kentucky on the eve of the Civil War.
“Kentucky 1861” will focus on the pivotal months between Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, and the state legislature’s decision to remain neutral in the war.
After a few months of study, students will portray legislators, militiamen and journalists in a role-playing game that asks them to debate the same issues Kentuckians grappled with 150 years ago.
Some of those debates will take place in the Old State Capitol – under the same roof that housed the talks the first time around.
The climate wasn’t that different than it is now, says Edwin Connor, associate professor in the Whitney Young School of Honors and Liberal Studies, one of two scholars teaching the course.
Americans were alarmed – even before Lincoln’s election – about the growing power of the federal government, especially as it related to slavery, Conner said.
“You have the election of a president who threatens them and their positions, what they consider at the very core of their well-being and their domestic economy, and it involves race, right at the center of it,” he told The State Journal.
“I would say now, as then, the issues involving race are not directly confronted. They tend to be hidden to a certain degree under the issue of states’ rights, and you can see echoes now between Kentucky in 2011 and Kentucky in 1861.”
Anne Butler, associate professor in the Whitney Young School of Honors and Liberal Studies, who will teach the course with Conner, said the mood in Frankfort was fractious and split.
By the mid-1800s, city leaders were worried about the growing number of free blacks, and they ordered them to attend a meeting where they were grilled about their behavior, she said.
“Those people who were deemed troublemakers or had too much social activity going on in their homes were summarily dismissed,” she said. “They were given a day, sometimes a week, to leave town forever.”
Some slaves fled Frankfort as fugitives, but there were also slave-owners who made accommodations for their slaves. That doesn’t mean it was all “moonlight and magnolias,” Butler said.
“One of the lessons we want to clarify with this course is that the deprivation of one’s freedom, being treated as property similar to real estate or cattle, did not lend itself to the more gentle, kind, romanticized notions of slavery in Kentucky,” she said. “There were some very real issues going on here.”
Being in Frankfort offers students a unique experience to visit many of the places they learn about, Butler said.
The course, which is open to all adults and seniors in high school, will include field trips to view the architecture on Washington Street, the Orlando Brown house, Liberty Hall, the old arsenal and Fort Hill. Local history buffs Russ Hatter and Nicky Hughes will re-enact important figures of the era.
“We recognized how context became so much more real, when you’re in the environment or the setting where the actions are taking place,” she said.
Butler will teach the course using documents from voices rarely heard in Civil War history: women, children and slaves. Those perspectives are important too, she said, because legislators weren’t the only people involved in the debate over slavery.
“I think each of us, as individuals, encounters moments when our own biography connects with history,” she said.
“There will be some meaningful experiences like that for the students, and we want them to be able to connect to their own biography and understand how people with ordinary backgrounds contributed to the overall Kentucky narrative.”
State higher education officials are pushing for more hands-on courses like this one, Conner said. The use of role-playing, primary documents and field trips is a teaching style called “active learning” that goes deeper and has more permanent results.
The game students will play, “Kentucky, 1861: A Nation in the Balance,” is part of a series of role-playing games published by Barnard College at Columbia University.
A description on the Barnard College website says the game opens with a special session of the Kentucky legislature.
“As one of the northernmost slaveholding states, Kentucky plays a pivotal role in the crisis unleashed by Lincoln’s election in 1860,” the site says.
“(The game) forces students to struggle with the complex and divided loyalties of their roles. They must determine how to reconcile varied motivations, interests, and ideologies with an unprecedented and intensely combustible situation.”
The Kentucky game is still in development by Nick Proctor, a history professor at Simpson College in Iowa.
Other games in the “Reacting to the Past” series focus on the work of Charles Darwin, India’s independence from Great Britain in 1945, King Henry VIII and the religious reformation, New York City during the Revolutionary War, the French revolution in 1791, and the trials of religious dissident Anne Hutchinson and astronomer Galileo.
The series even goes as far back as 403 B.C. with an exploration of democracy in Athens, Greece.
Students will play the game during the second half of the course, after they spend time studying their roles and the issues of the day. The debate won’t necessarily end the same way it did in 1861, as students will work to get legislators on their side, Conner said.
There will be some rules to keep contentious debate and hurt feelings at bay, Butler said. Instructors will monitor the discussion, but students must also be willing to listen openly to each other, she said.
“I suspect there will be some sleepless nights as students grapple with some of these issues,” she said. “And that’s the precipice of learning that matters, when students internalize and wrestle with some of these enduring questions.”
Some African American students could end up playing the role of slave owners or Confederate sympathizers, Conner said, forcing them to deal with the issue of slavery in a totally new way.
Conner says he had a similar experience the first time he read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which tells the story of a slave and her daughter after they escape. He will teach the book as part of the course.
“It made me think and rethink issues that I thought I had already resolved,” he said.
“For everyone involved, there will be something that is potentially disturbing, but the course provides a context in which you can deal with those things in an intelligent way, rethink them and learn a lot about the issues involved.”
The course is open to KSU students and community members. It takes place Tuesdays from 5-7:30 p.m. from Jan. 17 through May 13. Several students have already recruited their parents to enroll, Butler said.
To sign up, call Roberta Mason at 502-597-6813. The class costs $690 for community members, plus a $30 admission fee, and it can be taken for three hours of college credit or audited without credit.
High school students qualify for a reduced rate of $104, and senior citizens over age 65 can enroll for free.