A Connecticut fourth grade social studies textbook falsely claimed that slaves were treated just like “family.” A Texas geography textbook referred to enslaved Africans as “workers.” In Alabama, up until the 1970s, fourth graders learned in a textbook called "Know Alabama" that slave life on a plantation was "one of the happiest ways of life."
In contrast, historians and educators point out, many children in the U.S. education system are not taught about major Black historical events, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre or Juneteenth, the June 19 commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
As the country grapples with a racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd in police custody, educators said that what has and what has not been taught in school have been part of erasing the history of systemic racism in America and the contributions of Black people and other minority groups.
“There’s a long legacy of institutional racism that is barely covered in the mainstream corporate curriculum,” said Jesse Hagopian, an ethnic studies teacher in Seattle and co-editor of the book “Teaching for Black Lives.”
Historians said curriculums are about identity and learning about ourselves and others.
“The curriculum was never designed to be anything other than white supremacist," Julian Hayter, a historian and an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said, "and it has been very difficult to convince people that other versions of history are not only worth telling. They’re absolutely essential for us as a country to move closer to something that might reflect reconciliation but even more importantly, the truth."
LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri, said the history curriculums in schools are meant to tell a story and, in the U.S., that has been one of a “progressive history of the country.”
“Really the overarching theme is, ‘Yes, we made mistakes, but we overcame because we are the United States of America,'” said King, who is also the founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the university.
“What that has done is it has erased tons of history that would combat that progressive narrative,” he said.
King said the experiences and oppression of Black people, Latino people, indigenous people, Asian people and other minority groups in the U.S. are largely ignored or sidelined to fit those narratives.
“So, of course you’re not going to have crucial information such as what happened in Tulsa, you’re not going to have information such as the bombing of a Philadelphia black neighborhood,” he said.
In 1921 in Oklahoma, whites looted and destroyed Tulsa's Greenwood District, known for its affluent Black community. Historians believe that as many as 300 Black people were killed.
Another often-omitted period of U.S. Black history is the Red Summer, a period of time through 1919 when white mobs incited a wave of anti-Black violence in dozens of cities.
As for the protests against racial inequality and police brutality after the killing of Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, King emphasized that these movements were not new.
“Black people have been saying this for the past 400 years, this is not a new movement,” he said. “Each generation has had their point in time where they’re trying to say through protest, through rebellion, ‘listen to us, listen to us,’” he said.
Part of the problem is that society has never listened to that history, he said.
“In many ways we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom,” he said.
“In many ways we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom."
The current moment has also put increased national attention on Juneteenth, which is Friday this year.
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