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Black History Instruction Gets New Emphasis in Many States

Sep 12, 2020 09:58AM ● By Marsha Mercer, Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct information about Democratic Missouri state Rep. Tommie Pierson Jr. and to update the number of teachers who attended the Carter Center’s Teaching Black History Conference this summer.

Through his high school years in Orlando in the 1990s, Florida state Sen. Randolph Bracy never heard a word about a massacre seven decades earlier that took place on Election Day just 15 minutes away in Ocoee.

Only later did he learn the story: In 1920, an affluent Black man showed up to vote for president in the tiny town after the Ku Klux Klan warned Black voters not to go to the polls. Inspired by the Klan, angry locals rioted and set fire to homes, churches and other buildings owned by Black residents. The precise death toll is in dispute, but some historians say as many as 60 Black people were killed.

For decades afterward, Black locals would not set foot in Ocoee after sundown unless they had to be there for work, said Bracy, 43, a Democrat who is Black and lives in Ocoee.

“It’s still not something that people talk about,” he said in an interview.

Until now.

Starting next fall, the massacre will be taught in Florida classrooms because of a bill, introduced by Bracy, that the legislature passed unanimously and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in June. The measure also requires schools to include instruction in anti-Semitism as part of classes about the Holocaust.

After a summer of demonstrations against racism, states, school boards, school systems and teachers across the country are grappling with how to ramp up Black history lessons.

Black history instruction tends to focus on three areas — enslavement, the Civil War and the civil rights movement — and often is shoehorned into Black History Month in February, the shortest month of the year.

Now some states, schools and teachers are moving to infuse the Black experience into the broader social studies curriculum.

“Ultimately, our dream scenario is for African American history to be fully integrated into American history,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, a former middle school social studies teacher.

“American history is untold or incomplete without African American history,” he said in a phone interview.

This fall for the first time, Virginia will launch a pilot, elective high school course in African American history with a blend of in-person and online instruction.

Twenty teachers from around the state have been chosen to teach the new course and to participate in professional development to build content and strengthen culturally responsive practices and anti-bias and anti-racism education.

The class offering is one of the first steps the Virginia African American History Education Commission plans to bolster Black history instruction.

The commission, which is scheduled to submit its additional recommendations to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on Sept. 1, likely will propose making a course or credit in African American history mandatory for high school graduation and propose requiring that all Virginia teachers of grades K-12 be certified to teach African American history.

But there’s a catch.

“We haven’t got enough teachers to teach the course,” Qarni said.

Teacher training programs in education schools already offer classes in social studies and humanities subjects as well as in teaching methods, and “it’s hard to find spaces in the curriculum” for a new requirement, said Derrick Alridge, professor of education and director of the Center for Race and Public Education in the South at the University of Virginia and chair of the commission’s professional development committee.

However, if Northam adopts the recommendations, the commission or the Department of Education could work with university history departments and education schools on integrating African American history into the teacher education curriculum, Alridge said.

Northam appointed the commission in August 2019, several months after a conservative website published a photograph from his 1984 medical school yearbook that appeared to show him in blackface. Northam initially confessed that he was one of two men in the photograph before recanting the following afternoon. Refusing calls to resign, he vowed to improve racial equity in Virginia.

Students in Texas and Kentucky also are among those with new or revised Black history course offerings this fall.

In Texas, the Board of Education in April unanimously approved a new, statewide elective African American studies course for 10th- to 12th-graders. The class also reflects a shift in Texas from traditional Eurocentric history classes.

In 2018, the Texas board approved a Mexican American studies course, and members say they want to add a Native American studies course to the state’s curriculum.

Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools, the district that includes Louisville and is the state’s largest, recently revamped its Black history curriculum for grades K-12 to follow a new racial equity policy, aiming to make history less Eurocentric, said Ryan New, instructional lead in social studies.

The overhaul began two years ago, with New interviewing high school Black student union members to find out what they had learned about Black history and what they wanted to learn.

“Electives were often titled with banal names — like ‘the Civil Rights Movement 1950s-60s,’ he said. “A class titled, ‘African American Studies’ is not exciting to today’s students.”

So, African American Studies was renamed: It’s now called Developing Black Historical Consciousness.

The district adopted the Developing Black Historical Consciousness curriculum created by LaGarrett J. King, founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and a nationally renowned researcher on Black history education.

Students will learn history organized through five principles: oppression and power, agency and perseverance, Africa and the African diaspora, Black love and joy, and modern connections and intersectional history.

The movement to expand Black history instruction in the current moment is not surprising, King said.

“Whenever there’s civil unrest with Black people, there’s always a renewed emphasis on Black history,” he said. “What makes this time different is teachers are hungering to move past the superficial.”

Last summer, 300 teachers attended the Carter Center’s Teaching Black History Conference in person. In July, held online during the pandemic, the conference drew 1,000 teachers.

Among the presenters was Keziah Ridgeway, 35, an award-winning teacher of African American history at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, who kept her class going virtually last spring when city schools closed because of the pandemic. Kids from other schools, districts and even from out of state logged in to participate.

Philadelphia became the first district in the country to require a class in African American history for high school graduation, in 2005.

Many Black history classes start with enslavement, but that dehumanizes Blacks as victims, educators say. So Ridgeway goes back further and devotes much of the first semester to the beginnings of civilization and the rich history of African culture.

When her 10th-graders finally study the slave trade, they have a sense of “African people being smart with something to give,” she said.

While there’s no national curriculum for Black history, a bill in Congress would provide incentives to school districts that include Black history instruction. In May, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, introduced the Black History is American History Act.

In addition to Florida, eight other states enacted laws related to Black history education this year or last year, said Alyssa Rafa, policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.

Connecticut last year required the inclusion of Black and Latino studies in the curriculum by 2022, and Colorado mandated that African Americans and seven other minority groups be included in the teaching of civil government.

Arkansas and Maryland passed laws last year to expand awareness of their states’ Black and civil rights figures and events. And West Virginia last year required that the Emancipation Proclamation be added to the documents studied during the state’s Celebrate Freedom Week, which aims to “educate students about the sacrifices made for freedom in the founding of this country.”

The Rhode Island House passed a resolution in June urging school districts to include a unit of African American history in K-12 schools by the 2022-23 school year. Virginia and Vermont set up advisory or working groups.

Among state and local school boards rethinking Black history is the Ohio Board of Education, which in July directed state education department employees to take bias training and review state curriculum to eliminate bias. The board also urged local districts to conduct their own reviews.

“We want to be sure teachers are choosing materials that relate to their students’ experiences,” Board of Education President Laura Kohler, a Republican, said in an interview.

Missouri state Rep. Tommie Pierson Jr., a pastor and former teacher, introduced a House resolution last February urging the inclusion of “Black history celebrations and perspectives in K-12 lesson plans” in his state.

“When the pandemic hit, everything came to a standstill in the legislature,” Pierson, a Democrat, said in an interview. When the legislature came back into session, “there was no real appetite to move it forward.”

Pierson had hoped to introduce his bill in the state Senate next year, but earlier this month he lost his bid for a Senate seat in a three-way Democratic primary by 351 votes.

“This is a very important issue,” he said. “We need to heighten awareness. Even non-Blacks can see how systematic racism came to be.”

 This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.