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Before this spring, Patricia O’Shea, a rising senior at Granby High School in Norfolk, hadn’t heard of Louis Latimer, a Black inventor who helped Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.
Or Henry Brown, who climbed in a box and mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia to gain his freedom.
Or Sarah Garland Jones, the first female licensed to practice medicine in the commonwealth.
An elective class on African American history opened O’Shea’s eyes to these and many more Black Virginians who helped shape the state over the centuries. In previous history classes, she said, topics like slavery and Jim Crow laws were barely talked about – one unit at most.
But as other states across the country introduce legislation restricting educators from teaching about race, Virginia has gone in another direction. The state has started an initiative to incorporate more African American history into its public schools’ curriculum. More Black history is included in all history classes now, but students like O’Shea who want to explore it deeper have the option to with the new elective.
Experts say it’s an effort to move away from looking at Black history as separate from the country’s history and to see it for what it is: an integral part of the American experience.
What changes were made to Virginia’s curriculum?
Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander has spent her life studying Black history.
When the Norfolk State University professor was asked to help lead a commission to shape how history is taught in Virginia schools, she immediately said yes.
Gov. Ralph Northam created the African American History Education Commission to review Virginia’s standards and instructional methods of teaching African American history in August 2019. The commission recommended changes to classes from Virginia studies to U.S. history. Approved by the Virginia Department of Education, they’ll be implemented this fall.
It’s important, Newby-Alexander said, because African American history is often “othered” as an optional component of American history.
“It’s not, it’s this central part of the American landscape,” she said. “To talk about history, and the American past somehow devoid of African Americans, is part of what the commission was trying to correct.”
That includes adding Juneteenth to a list of holidays for kindergartners to explore. Or learning about African American Union spy Mary Bowser. Or creating a timeline of how 20th-century Jim Crow laws restricted rights, economic decision-making and choices of African Americans.
The commission also helped develop a statewide African American history class to be taught as an elective in high schools. Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk were part of a group that piloted the course during the last school year. Every school district can offer it this fall.
Ed Allison, who taught O’Shea’s African American studies class at Granby High, learned about Black history mostly from his parents and his own research, not his classes at Bayside High School.
At age 17, he picked up the second edition of John Hope Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.” He couldn’t put it down.
“I remember seeing stuff like, pregnant women had to work in the fields until they had the baby. And then the next day, they were back in the fields,” he said. “And I was like, ‘What?’”
The ninth edition of John Hope Franklin’s book is one of the textbooks used for the African American history elective. The class covers a lot. Some topics include the first Africans coming to Virginia in 1619, Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia’s slave codes, the founding of the local Black colleges Hampton University and Norfolk State University, and Black musicians, athletes and scientists.
Christonya Brown, the history and social sciences education coordinator for Virginia’s education department, said she’s been blown away by what students in different elective classes have done so far. Students in Allegheny County are creating a website about an all-Black community, Wrightsville. A student in Covington created a children’s book about what freedom means. Students in Allison’s spring semester class worked with Fort Monroe and presented at a global United Nations conference.
“As long as you have students at the forefront of everything you do, it’s OK to make adults uncomfortable,” she said, repeating advice a supervisor once gave her. “Because we’re adults.”
Getting rid of historical inaccuracies
Earlier this month at a Gloucester School Board town hall meeting, about 150 parents and community members gathered in an auditorium. Many were there to protest or ask questions about “critical race theory” and the state’s new history curriculum.
This isn’t a new phenomenon – parents have been speaking out to school districts across Virginia and the country.
Critical race theory is a concept taught in law school, Newby-Alexander said, and unrelated to the African American History Education Commission.
The commission’s work has focused on getting rid of inaccuracies and adding important parts of history that have been left out, she said.
Brown said she gets letters and emails from students all the time about things their history classes didn’t cover.
One student in Norfolk told her for years she rode the bus to school, which always crossed Evelyn T. Butts Avenue. One day, she googled the name and discovered she was a Norfolk civil rights activist who fought against the poll tax.
“That’s important,” the student told Brown. “And I didn’t learn it in my U.S. history class.”
Matthan Wilson, who teaches the African American history elective at Woodside High School in Newport News, said it’s a scary environment in which to be a teacher right now.
Wilson attended historically Black schools I.C. Norcom High School, Norfolk State University and NCA&T. As a child, he didn’t go to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, which was segregated until the early 1960s – instead, his dad took him to the Black beaches in Ocean View. His mother’s side of the family has been free since the late 17th century.
Wilson grew up surrounded by the history of his people. So to those pushing back against teaching Black history, it can feel like he doesn’t exist.
“I was taught your world in school,” he said. “I was taught your history, from your point of view, but as soon as I started talking about mine, you shut down. I’m like, ‘Wow!’ You know nothing about me, I just want to tell you about me.”
‘A history they had never heard’
When Allison started teaching Granby’s African American studies class in 2019, a year before it became a statewide course, he created his own curriculum.
Now, he can use state resources to help guide content, such as the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Collaborative, an open education resource created on #GoOpenVA by the state education department, social studies specialists, local museums and libraries.
It includes sorting cards to match important names, phrases and places from the Civil Rights Movement, and modules examining topics like Black poetry, freedom rides and the legacy of HBCUs in the U.S.
Ma’asehyahu Isra-Ul is president of the Virginia Social Studies Consortium and oversees the history program for Richmond Public Schools. One of his jobs is helping teachers work statewide edits into their districts’ curriculum. He said the focus is to teach students how to research, think critically and analyze primary sources.
For example, if a student asks if Thomas Jefferson was racist, a teacher wouldn’t say “yes, of course he was, he had over 600 slaves.” Instead, Isra-Ul said, they’d point the student to primary sources and look at Jefferson’s views towards African Americans and indigenous people. They’d align Jefferson’s actions with their understanding of the term “racist.”
“Our job is not to come in and try to push our kids into our views that we have, or may have, as adults,” he said. “Our job is to present information to the kids.”
Wilson, who taught three sections of the African American history elective remotely last semester, said his students have loved it.
Even parents will call him to tell him they learned something from his class.
“You’re telling them a history that they had never heard,” he said.
Sonia Rao, email@example.com