‘The Humanity of Blackness' Missing From History Classes: How to Transform Black History Education in Schools

Experts have been calling for a major overhaul of the K-12 curriculum for years, so that Black history, which is vital to understanding American history, is better integrated into mainstream U.S. history classes and that there are courses specifically devoted to the African American experience

Editor's Note: This story was originally published June 29, 2020 in the wake of the protests following the death of George Floyd and has been republished for Black History Month.

The history of African Americans begins on the African continent where diverse empires thrived for thousands of years and traded gold, ivory and salt with people from other civilizations. But in the majority of classrooms K-12 across the U.S., students learn about the African American heritage starting with the enslavement in the U.S. colonies, a system that erased the identity of the enslaved and treated them as property. 

“Those that populated the colonies were free people from communities in Africa with large scale civilizations that had tax systems, that had irrigation systems, that had universities -- they came from civilized nations that were advanced,” said Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin. “That’s where the curriculum should begin, that’s the biggest omission from my perspective. It’s an erasure of culture and heritage so that identities of African Americans for some are that of slaves and those fighting for their freedom.”

That starting point is just part of the problem in the way the American education system addresses Black history, according to experts. The system also minimizes the gross violence Black Americans faced after the Civil War, and over-simplifies the civil rights movement.

"I feel like we've missed several generations of learning," Berry said.

As a result, many Americans are taught little about the history of systemic racism and the many contributions of Black people to America’s economy and the democratic system. Educators also say there's more to Black history than just teaching about oppression and suffering, and that curriculums need to incorporate lessons on Black "agency, joy, love and global connection with Blackness around the world," said LaGarrett King, director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri.

King said it’s more historically accurate in Black history to start talking about liberation with June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned that the Civil War ended two months before and that they were free. Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black people across the country since then, but it has not been widely taught in schools.

“There's a lack of understanding of what is actually Black history,” King said. “What is historically important to white people is not historically important to Black people. July 4, 1776, means nothing historically to Black people.” 

Recent protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis police have sparked a national conversation on racial injustice that includes the reexamination of how African American history has been taught in schools. Experts who have focused on that topic have been calling for a major overhaul of the K-12 curriculum for years, so that Black history, which is vital to understanding American history, is better integrated into mainstream U.S. history classes and that there are courses devoted to the African American experience.

Historians and educators say classroom lessons don't explain that white politicians continued to pass laws after the abolition of slavery that prevented Black communities from thriving. The segregation laws, known as "Jim Crow," relegated African Americans to the status of second class citizens in post-Reconstruction America, preserving a system of racial apartheid that dominated mostly the southern and borders states between 1877 and the mid-1960s, but also impacted Black people living in the North. Black citizens were denied the right to vote, were not allowed to attend the same schools as white people and could not rent or buy real estate in white neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, white citizens, who felt threatened by the rise of Black communities during Reconstruction, unleashed a wave of terror on their fellow countrymen -- incidents that have been minimized or ignored in textbooks.

On Nov. 2, 1920, a mob of white people in Ocoee, Florida, became infuriated when a Black man showed up at the polls to vote and over two days of terror, the mob set fire to homes and drove Black residents from their community. Some estimate that as many at 60 people were killed.

Florida did not require students to learn about the Ocoee massacre until this month -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring schools to teach it in history classes on June 25.

In 1921, white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attacked the city's affluent African American community, killing as many as 300 people and injuring hundreds more. The attack, which took place over the course of 16 hours, destroyed the Black business district, known as Black Wall Street, and left thousands of people homeless.

Schools in Oklahoma were not required to teach it until 2002.

The civil rights movement, an unprecedented fight for equality, spanning two decades, often gets boiled down to "lessons about a handful of heroic figures and the four words 'I have a dream,'" according to a 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The report found that some states, like Georgia and South Carolina, are doing "an outstanding job" of teaching about the civil rights movement, but it gave many states grades of D and F, including Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine.

"There is tremendous pressure from the political right to teach a wholly false history that ignores the nation’s blemishes and misrepresents struggles for social justice," the report said. "In this revisionist version, the framers worked tirelessly to end slavery, the nation was perfect at birth, and states’ rights—not slavery—was the motivation behind Southern secession. Together, these interpretations deny the everyday reality of millions of today’s students—that the nation is not yet perfect and that racism and injustice still exist. This narrative also ignores the agency of people of color and denies the need for group action to promote social justice."

There are school districts that already mandate the teaching of African American history or offer it as an elective, but the curriculum, which is supposed to delve much deeper into the Black experience than a standard U.S. history course, often doesn’t humanize the African American experience. And while there are thousands of teachers who to teach a much richer and more complete history even though it's not in the standards, many more don’t have the training or the time to incorporate it into their teaching, experts say. While progress continues to be made, there needs to be a shift on the national level to contextualize the Black experience in the U.S., so that students see how it relates to issues of police brutality and systematic racism Black people deal with today, King and Berry said. 

“The Black history curriculum needs to come from a Black perspective with topics specifically geared towards the Black experience, and many times these narratives are and need to be independent of the way we typically frame U.S. history,” King wrote in “The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society,” an article published in the Social Education journal in 2017. “The curriculum will need to balance narratives of victimhood, oppression, perseverance, and resistance, but unlike current renditions of the curriculum, it should contextualize issues that connect with the present.”

King launched the Carter Center in 2018 because he noticed that there wasn’t an organization that was dedicated strictly for the professional development for Black history K-12 teachers. On July 24 and 25,  the center will host its third annual “Teaching Black History Conference” that offers professional development to teachers who want to improve  K-12 Black history education. King said history teachers who want to make changes to how they teach Black history should “start by taking inventory of self, understanding that Black history may be contentious with who you are as a person and the perspectives that you have. If you’re teaching it through your perspectives, then you’re likely teaching it wrong.” He said teachers need to look for resources, which are free and readily available, and seek out primary source documents so that students read “the words of Black folks.” They should invite Black people from their communities who can talk about their experiences.

Mike Bennett teaches U.S history at Parnassus Preparatory School in the suburb of Minneapolis. He said after taking an online course last year with Berry on the "The Lives of the Enslaved," he's been able to incorporate an article on "how the entire United States benefited from slavery, not just the South," and add slave narratives that provided rich details he would not have otherwise included in his classroom. He says, as a white, middle-aged man, he's still learning and challenging himself to incorporate more Black voices and perspectives in his lessons.

King said school districts also have the responsibility to help teachers understand and define what Black history is and that if there’s going to be a curriculum overhaul, there needs to be a buy-in “by the schools' system where educators, administrators, the community, university personnel, all come together to design this curriculum.”

But school districts don’t have the “reinvent the wheel because there are great Black curriculums out there,” King said. In 2005, the city of Philadelphia mandated that ninth-graders be required to take a course in African-American history. Philadelphia became the first major city to require such a course for high school graduation.

In April 2020, the State Board of Education in Texas approved an elective African American studies course, which means high schools can offer it as early as this fall. 

Keina Cook will be teaching that course for the first time at Killeen High School in Killeen, Texas. Growing up in New Orleans in the 1990s, Cook learned about African American history starting at enslavement. Then she said, she remembers learning about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. Jr., and Malcolm X, the extent of her Black history education. She learned to be proud of her African heritage from her dad, who grew up in the 50s and the 60s in segregated New Orleans and was proud of the African American culture. She also attended a camp where kids learned about the principals of Kwanza. She said she didn’t learn Black history in more depth until she went to college, and she’s still learning and discovering just how horrible slavery was.

Cook also took Berry's course on the "The Lives of the Enslaved," which was offered through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in partnership with Pace University. She learned that Black enslaved women were used by white doctors for gynecological experimentation because they were believed to experience less pain than white women and that Black bodies were commodified even after death and dug up for medical testing. She doesn’t want her students to miss out on information that humanizes the enslaved.  

“There's a way to explain to students in high school these gory details," said Cook. "You shouldn't have to go to college to learn these things. The standards have to change, the curriculum needs to change because we've always taught history from the Eurocentric point. We incorporate marginalized groups a little bit. The African American identity has to be reformulated."

The African American studies elective was piloted in some Dallas high schools before it was approved and students who took the course testified at a Texas Education Agency hearing last year in favor of the class, saying it has changed how they think of themselves and their communities. 

“My ancestors were more than slaves, and I want to understand what they did to contribute to my future and to America,” said Taylor Ellingberg-McLeod, a student at Trinidad Garza Early College High School. “It is so unfortunate that I have to work hard to get a basic understanding of where I came from.”

Another student said her teacher incorporated lessons on immigration, which helped her understand similarities among Latino and African American communities.

“This course really impacted me because it made me realize many of the injustices that my people face are really similar to the injustices the African American community faces,” said Johana Miranda, a student at New Tech High School.

Educators say it's important that Black students learn about their history and that non-Black students understand the humanity of Blackness as well as the long history of systematic racism that extends to this day and affects their Black peers. To achieve that goal, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, thinks all schools should be required to teach Black history. In May, she introduced the Black History Is American History Act, which if passed, would offer grants for teachers and students to teach and learn Black history. It would also require the only national test given to elementary, middle, and high school students to always include Black history.

Berry, who in February released, "A Black Women's History of the United States," a book co-authored with Prof. Kali Nicole Gross, said at the hearing in Texas that, after teaching for 20 years, she still feels shocked when students enter her classes at The University of Texas and show little or no knowledge of the African American heritage.

She hopes that teacher trainings and changes in the curriculum will make a lasting impact on the education of future generations.

King noted that this year’s conference hosted by the Carter Center is virtual due to the coronavirus concerns, and there’s increased interest in the training in light of the protests in the wake of George Floyd's death.

“Teachers have to stop thinking of their students as students and start thinking of their students as citizens,” said King. “You have to think of them as future police officers, judges, lawyers, and doctors and it’s important for citizens to understand other citizens.

"If we leave out histories and leave out knowledge of our country, particularly of non-white people, then how will those citizens become good citizens when they become adults? They just can’t, because they don’t understand half of the population that they will be serving. Until we understand that Black people are human, then change in the curriculum is going to be difficult.”

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