How do we teach Black history in polarized times? Here’s what it looks like in three cities
One day this spring, Victoria Trice’s high school students in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, peered through virtual reality headsets as part of a lesson on Afrofuturism.
In Philadelphia, Sharahn Santana encouraged her tenth graders to reflect on what might have happened if Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling upholding racial segregation, had been decided differently.
In Norfolk, Virginia, the juniors and seniors enrolled in an African American history class taught by Ed Allison were working on their capstone projects, using nearby Fort Monroe, the site where the first enslaved Africans landed in 1619, as a jumping off point to explore their family history.
These teachers all have one thing in common: their devotion to deeply exploring the history of Black people in America — a topic that has often been downplayed, or simply left out of, general history lessons.
Such classes are under a microscope after the political skirmish set off when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida rejected portions of an African American studies course piloted by the College Board, saying that the Advanced Placement class teaches concepts specifically forbidden by the state’s ban on teaching “critical race theory” and “divisive concepts.” At least five other states are examining the course to see if it is contrary to similar state laws. In July, DeSantis’ administration again stirred criticism when it released new state standards for Black history that critics say are incomplete and downplay the harms of slavery and racism. For example, the standards direct that students be taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“When we think about the history curriculum, white people have been told that they’re the most historically important people in the world. So when they’re not centered in that narrative, or their ideas are not centered, then they tend to say this is not of educational value.”
LaGarrett King, founder and director of the Center for K–12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University of Buffalo
The controversies have had subtle reverberations for the classrooms in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia too. In Philadelphia and Norfolk, it has strengthened educators’ resolve to teach comprehensively about the subject and added to their sense of urgency. But in Kentucky, Trice, the only educator in the state to teach the pilot A.P. course targeted by Gov. DeSantis, has grown increasingly skeptical that the class will spread to other Kentucky schools, even as her politically liberal district doubles down on a commitment to African American history it made as part of a curriculum revamp in 2018.
It’s important that school districts not shy away from offering Black history courses despite the recent attacks on the subject, says LaGarrett King, founder and director of the Center for K–12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University of Buffalo. He adds that it’s not surprising that Black history classes make some people uncomfortable.
“When we think about the history curriculum, white people have been told that they’re the most historically important people in the world. So when they’re not centered in that narrative, or their ideas are not centered, then they tend to say this is not of educational value,” said King.
Adults who learned U.S. history through a particular lens may have a hard time comprehending that history classes are taught differently, or contain different perspectives, than when they were young, he said.
King, who created a framework to teach Black history at the K-12 level that’s being used in Trice’s district, said the core of a good Black history course goes beyond surface-level instruction on slavery and Civil Rights to explore concepts of institutional racism and anti-Blackness. It gives students the knowledge and skills to draw connections to present-day events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killings of George Floyd, Michael Brown and other Black Americans, he said. And it eschews what he calls “hero worship” — overly simplistic portrayals of Civil Rights leaders and others — for more critical, complex thinking and narratives.
Different states, school systems and individual schools have taken wildly different approaches to incorporating Black history, with some making its study a graduation requirement and others deprioritizing it and relying on textbooks that haven’t been updated for years. This year, The Hechinger Report spent time in three different high school classrooms where teachers have prioritized Black history in this contentious political climate, to learn how African American history studies has changed over the years and what it might look like for students to receive a substantive, nuanced education on the topic.
Just blocks from where hundreds of protestors gathered near the Ohio River waterfront after the death of Breonna Taylor in 2020 sits Central High School.
The school is steeped in history: It was the first African American public school in Kentucky, and counts boxer Muhammad Ali among its alumni. Because of its history, it’s not surprising that Central High was the only school in the state selected by the College Board to pilot its new AP African American Studies course. Seventy percent of the school’s students are Black or African American, and a little over six percent are of Hispanic descent.
There are just 25 students enrolled in the course at Central High, offered in two sections and taught by Trice, who once walked the halls of Central High herself, taking part in the school’s quiz bowl Black history team as a student in the mid-2000s. On the Wednesday following the A.P. exam, Trice promised her students that the lesson would be on a lighter note — “no more annotations,” she told the class.
Before Trice introduced the topic of Afrofuturism, she asked her students to think about the dreams they have for the future. Then she asked them, “Where do you think we will be collectively as a Black community? Everybody included, whether your people have been here 300 years, or they’ve been here for three.”
The students, all of whom are Black, grew serious. There are few “hmmms” and murmurs as they ponder the question.
Trices explained that Afrofuturism, one of the course’s final topics, is about “centering Black folks,” their identities and stories, in ways that blend the past and future. She cited the film Black Panther as one example, combining images of various African cultures with advanced technology. She then showed her students the music video for an early 1990’s song, “Prototype,” by AfroFuturism Hip-Hop duo OutKast.
Next she handed out VR headsets and asked her students to grab their cellphones and head to her Google classroom, where posted three different experiences that showcase Afrofuturism: an Afrofuturism art museum, a short VR film and a musical performance. Later, students were asked to create a piece of afro-futuristic art, using a photo of themselves, that reflected their past and their hopes for the future.
“At the crux of Black Futures is this concept of dreaming and how can we turn those dreams into realities. And that’s a beautiful concept,” King said.
Trice’s students have spent the better part of the year immersed in learning about early African societies, the great West African empires, the transatlantic slave trade, reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement and more contemporary topics, such as reparations and Black Lives Matter.
They’re also acutely aware that they are the only students in Kentucky taking a course that has become controversial nationally. “I’m not surprised,” said Jeremiah Taylor, a junior. He said while there’s still a lot of hostility toward Black history, being in this class gives them the opportunity “to do a deep dive into Black history,” which he says he wouldn’t get in another history class.
According to Trice, last year the course attracted a limited number of students — all Black and Latino — because the College Board didn’t offer college credit during its pilot year of African American studies. While she’s glad that next year’s course has attracted more interest, the close-knit nature of her class has allowed for open discussions, she said.
“We’ve been able to kind of create an environment where the kids feel safe to say what their opinion is. It’s not always the same, but we’ve been able to have some really good discussions just in general about racism, about issues of otherism, issues of financial differences,” Trice said. “We talked about the economic impact of slavery to go from being money to trying to catch up with everyone else, who was given that opportunity of reaching this ‘American dream,’ and having 300-400 years of being someone else’s money.”
“We’ve been able to kind of create an environment where the kids feel safe to say what their opinion is.
Victoria Trice, who teaches the pilot AP African American history course in Jefferson Public Schools, Kentucky
Those kinds of discussions also require a supportive school culture and administration, she said. Many of the students’ families are unlikely to complain about the history curriculum, Trice said in part because of Central High School’s demographics.
Given the political environment right now, she’s skeptical that other schools in the state will pick up the course once it becomes available in the fall of 2024.
Trice said without support from school administrators, teachers may be scared or unprepared to teach the course for fear of parent and community backlash. “I don’t know how you really cherry-pick what you’d like to cover in an AP class. You can’t skip the slavery unit, or you can’t think to skip Harriet Jacobs’ primary source of her narratives of a slave girl, where she’s talking about being sexually harassed by slaveholder,” she said. “Those are tough topics; teachers may not want to cover the possibility of sexual assault, the history of that when it comes to Black women during enslavement.”
Maeva Pozoko, a junior in the class, said everyone should have the option to take a comprehensive Black history course in high school.
“It’s important to know how it happened, what is the effect of that because we still live with the effects of what happened,” she said.
Pozoko said while the backlash to the course felt at times “like a slap in the face”, the experience has made her want to continue learning about the subject. She is signed up to take another Black history course in the fall, she said.
Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson was on the screen at the front of the classroom, laying out the judge’s then-losing argument that segregating people by race in rail coaches was unconstitutional.
Standing before her students, Santana, their history teacher, wanted to know: What did it mean that the Plessy case had offered a chance for America “to move up the timeline for racial reform,” as public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson put it? How would our lives be different today?
The tenth graders in Santana’s class lobbed answers.
“Things would be better because it would have fast-forwarded rights for Black people,” said one student.
“We would have more respect,” said another.
“There wouldn’t be a large racial wealth gap,” said a third.
In every high school in Philadelphia, there’s an African American history class like this one. That’s because, in 2005, Philadelphia began requiring that students take African American history to graduate, the first big city to do so. In this school system, in a politically liberal city in a swing state where more than half of students are Black and nearly a quarter are Hispanic, there’s been little of the pushback or controversy over African American history that has roiled other school districts and states.
“In kindergarten and middle school, we only ever talked about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King.”
Haajah Robinson, student, Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Justice, Philadelphia
“We have a duty to expose our children to multiple ideas and perspectives and allow them to wrestle with ideas and be part of the larger dialogue,” said Ismael Jimenez, a former classroom teacher who now serves as the director of social studies in the district’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction. Black history, he said, “is arguably just a counternarrative to the larger mainstream story which we’ve been indoctrinated with.”
That said, the district has had its struggles with the mandatory course. It’s difficult to find enough teachers with the subject-area knowledge to teach it, and over the years, many of the teachers who’d initially received professional development in the subject had left, Jimenez said.
In 2021, when he joined the district’s central office, the Philadelphia school system committed to investing in training for teachers and revamping the curriculum to include more primary sources, among other changes. The district also began holding workshops on Black studies for all educators, featuring speakers such as scholars Hasan Jeffries and Bettina Love.
Santana has been teaching the course at Philadelphia’s Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice since 2019. Unlike many of the teachers who teach the course, she has a background in the topic, having taken African American history classes as an undergraduate history major at Fisk University. And, also unlike most teachers of the African American history course in Philadelphia, she’s Black, which she said helps some students at her majority-Black school feel more comfortable opening up.
Until now, the students said, the African American history they’d been taught in school tended to be superficial.
“In kindergarten and middle school, we only ever talked about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King,” said Haajah Robinson, 15, speaking during an interview in the school library. “But Ms. Santana goes deep.” She had her students read David Walker’s Appeal, Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, stories from the abolitionist paper The Liberator and more.
“It’s important that you know what I’m giving you is facts. I know Black history is challenged a lot and looked at as a controversial thing,” she said. “I don’t want you guys to think, ‘Oh, Ms. Santana is pro-Black. She’s just saying that.’”
She added, “I want you all to know what our people went through because you guys have a torch to carry. … When you leave my class, I want you to feel proud.”
By contrast, Santana, 43, said that as a K-12 student, “I learned about Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, and just slaves. No names. Blacks were just slaves. And Lincoln freed you,” she said. “It never sat well with me, and it was the catalyst to want to research more and was why I went to study history in the first place.”
“I want you all to know what our people went through because you guys have a torch to carry. … When you leave my class, I want you to feel proud.”
Sharahn Santana, who teaches African American history in Philadelphia public schools
To Santana’s students, the recent controversy around teaching about racism was confounding. The idea that white children — who make up about 13 percent of students in this district — shouldn’t be exposed to conversations about America’s racist past lest it make them feel uncomfortable or guilty felt counterproductive.
“A lot of these bad things happened, but it happened. This is really what went down,” said Zaniyah Roundree, 15. “You might have to sit there and feel bad for a little bit in order to come up with a solution about how we can improve our society based off the things that happened in the past.”
Jimenez said the current controversies over African American history have deepened the Philadelphia district’s commitment to prioritize the subject. Topics that have drawn the most ire from conservatives, such as Black Lives Matter and intersectionality, aren’t part of required instruction, he said, but they are included in the course’s suggested learning experiences.
For her part, Santana said she doesn’t flinch from exploring connections between historical events and contemporary realities such as housing and school segregation. But she also doesn’t tend to cover very recent topics such as Black Lives Matter. Her class begins around 2000 BC with lessons about ancient African kingdoms and extends through the Civil Rights era.
“I try not to get too political,” she said. “I try to stick to the accomplishments, the work, the experience, the laws, the changes that were made, the watershed moments, and I let the kids make their own decisions.”
Newspaper clippings and student assignments cover the walls of Ed Allison’s classroom at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia — a testament to the years that he has spent at the school teaching history, including an African American history elective that he helped create.
In 2008, a dark-haired Barack Obama, then a Democratic candidate for president, visited his class to tell students to set high expectations for themselves. Other articles commemorate the work he and his students did in 2021 with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, which has worked to memorialize and shed light on the slave trade. About 10 miles away from the school is Fort Monroe: Once known as Point Comfort, the first documented enslaved Africans landed there in 1619. Some of his students presented at a U.N. sponsored Global Student Conference on Point Comfort’s history.
To Allison, it is all much to be proud of — and all just a part of teaching a complete story of the United States, past and present.
“We teach factual stuff that has been documented in history,” Allison said. “Is it a tough history? Yes. But is it critical for people to understand the history? Yes.”
While African American history classes have faced recent controversy, in Norfolk, the electives have been in place for years. In 2019, then Gov. Ralph Northam convened a panel that helped develop a Virginia African American history elective that is offered statewide and is now one of the classes that Allison teaches. This coming school year, he’ll be teaching the A.P. African American history.
In Virginia, one of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first acts after he was sworn in was signing an order banning the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts,” which his administration said “ instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.” Allison said the order has not as of yet affected his course, which was developed by teachers within the state. However, Virginia is among the states that says it is “reviewing” the advanced placement Black studies course that will be offered nationally. At least three districts in addition to Norfolk say they plan to offer the advanced placement course in the 2023-24 school year.
Virginia’s African American history elective spends time on enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, race relations and other “heavy” topics. But there are also sections on music, art, entrepreneurship and other achievements, Allison said.
Like many students, Alexander Bradshaw took field trips to Fort Monroe when he was a younger student. The historical site, about 12 miles away from Norfolk, is a popular field trip destination. But it was only during Bradshaw’s time in Allison’s class that the significance of the location was clear to the 17-year-old junior. He is now digging into his own family tree — genetic testing shows the family has roots in modern day Congo and Benin, he said.
Bradshaw, like the other students, said he’s aware of the controversy around the course. But the class “helps you feel more comfortable in yourself — you feel confident knowing where you came from and the history behind it. I feel like everybody should be able to know that.”
“Often I go home and I always have something to tell. I’m telling my family what I’ve learned. I just feel like that’s a very crucial part for us.”
Carrington Smith, high school student, Norfolk, Virginia
Carrington Smith, also a 17-year-old junior, ended up in the course by accident — “to be honest, when I first got my schedule, I didn’t know what it was,” she said. A guidance counselor had made the schedule.
But now she appreciates the course, especially the section on Black artists.
“I just feel like a lot of people should know about this class,” Smith said. “Often I go home and I always have something to tell. I’m telling my family what I’ve learned. I just feel like that’s a very crucial part for us.”
Katrina Acheson, an 18-year-old senior, enrolled in the African American history course because she needed a history credit. As a white student, she started off feeling that she might be “intruding — that I was taking away space from other people and that I wasn’t supposed to be here because I’m white.”
“We teach factual stuff that has been documented in history. Is it a tough history? Yes. But is it critical for people understand the history? Yes.”
Ed Allison, African American history teacher, Norfolk, Virginia
During the year-long course, that feeling went away for her, she said. “I’ve been really welcomed. It is emotional to everyone in the room, but I think it’s very important that it is taught. Being uncomfortable is an emotion that everyone experiences.”
Allison said he hopes “like-minded people” will embrace, as his students have, this broader view of the American story.
“Just let me teach history. That’s all. That’s it,” Allison said. “And what they decide to do with it … you’re making it political. You’re saying ‘critical race theory,’ you’re saying ‘woke’ — that’s them. And I think fair-minded people have to understand that’s not what it is.”
This story about Black history in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.