EVANSTON, IL — A proposal expand the breadth of the Black history curriculum required under the Illinois School Code has gained momentum this month amid increased anti-racist advocacy across the nation, according to the measure's sponsor.
House Bill 4954 would include the teaching of the American civil rights movement of 1954 to 1965 in mandatory elementary school American history studies and add three commemorative holidays to the school calendar — Humanitarian Day on Jan. 15, Victims of Violence Wholly Day on April 4 and Dream Day on Aug. 28.
Plus, thanks to an amendment authored by an Evanston activist, the bill also includes a requirement that Black history instruction in elementary and high school include a review of events prior to 1619, the study of the reasons for the transatlantic slave trade and the promotion of "a commonality of identity."
State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), the bill's chief sponsor, is a former history teacher at Chicago Public Schools. Ford, who has also sponsored a statewide audit of Black history curricula, said legislation to improve the quality of education is among the most important of his career.
"Taxpayers pay a lot of money for property taxes to send their kids to elementary, junior high, high school, and for their tax dollars to be used to miseducate people is a crime," Ford said Thursday.
Meleika Gardner, the longtime Evanston resident who wrote the amendment to Ford's bill, emphasized the history of Black people does not begin when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia four centuries ago.
"We built civilizations. We built kingdoms. We contributed to medicine, technology, literature, and these are things the children need to know, all children, not just Black children," Gardner said, speaking at a news conference with Ford and other supporters of the bill. "I know that if this bill passes it will create a sense of self identity, self-worth, self-knowledge, race identity and it will help with race relations as well."
Devon Horton, who officially began this month as superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65, urged lawmakers to support Ford's bill, saying a vote against it would further affirm the persistence of racism. All students would benefit, he said, regardless of race, from a statewide expansion of the kind of Black history curriculum already being offered in Evanston schools.
"This exposure has the potential to transform how students see and interact with each other and directly combat racism," Horton said. "White supremacy is a learned behavior from what is taught in our history books."
Ford said President Donald Trump unintentionally underscored the failings of mainstream history teaching when he said in an interview last week he "made Juneteenth very famous," because "nobody had ever heard of it."
"One of the reasons why we have to celebrate Black History Month is because this nation knows that we're not teaching Black history," Ford said. "So if we just teach Black history not as a pull-out, but in every chapter of the book, then we're doing a good job, and we don't have to worry about teaching Black history one month out of the year."
Illinois has since 1991 required every public elementary and high school to include a unit of instruction studying Black history, thanks to the efforts of the late State. Rep. William Shaw, a Chicago Democrat. The teaching must include the contributions of African Americans to the development of the United States and Africa and the struggle for equal treatment under the law. The law leaves it up to school boards to decide what material to use and how much time to spend on the material.
In 2005, that portion of the School Code was amended as part of a measure sponsored by former State Rep. Monique Davis to also require teaching history of the slave trade, slavery in America and the vestiges of slavery in the United States. The same bill also created the Amistad Commission to improve the teaching of African American history.
Premon Rami, a Chicago historian and filmmaker, helped develop a new Black history curriculum for the state's public schools while serving as the director of history at the DuSable Museum. In 2013, he met with then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
Byrd-Bennett, who last month was released from federal prison due to the coronavirus, was unaware of the legislation, Rami said, and so his committee was tasked with developing a new set of Black history lessons. But many schools have yet to adopt it, he said.
"The challenge has always been how do you get the teachers to use it," Rami said. "The material is there."
In 2018, State Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City) introduced a bill that would have made learning Black history mandatory for Illinois students. But by the time it made it out of committee, the provision that forbid students from completing eighth grade or graduating from high school without studying black history was removed.
Later that year, a measure sponsored by Ford forming a task force to audit the teaching of African American history at every Illinois school district passed unanimously. The task force it created has not yet issued a report.
Ford introduced his latest Black history legislation in February. At a March 4 meeting of the Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education: School Curriculum and Policies Committee, Gardner's amendment was adopted by voice vote and the measure won committee approval.
Gardner said it was the first time she had experienced a Springfield committee hearing.
"It was a fight. We won 14 votes in favor, seven opposing, but let me tell you: those seven opposing were very, very bold," she said. "They were just as bold as Derek Chauvin putting the knee on George Floyd's neck. They were very clear in how they felt about this bill. So much as to say on record, that if you do it for the Black community, then we have to do it for the Puerto Ricans and everybody. That was said on record. No shame."
The School Code currently says the following regarding U.S. history curriculum:
The teaching of history shall include a study of the role and contributions of African Americans and other ethnic groups including but not restricted to Polish, Lithuanian, German, Hungarian, Irish, Bohemian, Russian, Albanian, Italian, Czech, Slovak, French, Scots, Hispanics, Asian Americans, etc., in the history of this country and this State. To reinforce the study of the role and contributions of Hispanics, such curriculum shall include the study of the events related to the forceful removal and illegal deportation of Mexican-American U.S. citizens during the Great Depression. The teaching of history also shall include a study of the role of labor unions and their interaction with government in achieving the goals of a mixed free enterprise system. Beginning with the 2020-2021 school year, the teaching of history must also include instruction on the history of Illinois. No pupils shall be graduated from the eighth grade of any public school unless he has received such instruction in the history of the United States and gives evidence of having a comprehensive knowledge thereof.
The section titled, "Black History," just as with those titled, "Holocaust and Genocide Studies," "Study of the History of Women," "'Irish Famine' study," do not require students to give evidence of knowledge.
So far, Ford has only five co-sponsors on the bill, which will need 71 votes to pass if it is put up for a vote during November's veto session. He said some of his fellow Democratic lawmakers who supported it during committee had not been committed to its passage, but things have changed this month.
"Since George Floyd, since we've had the unrest in the neighborhoods, I've gotten calls from my white colleagues that told us during committee that they were not for it, that now they believe more than ever that we need to pass a bill like this," he said. "So that's a big move. "
Ford thanked Gardner for bringing a new life to efforts to expand the breadth of the Black history curriculum in Illinois. He said it was time to consider the affects the names of streets, parks and monuments in cities and towns have on communities.
"When we walk, and we go to parks, and we go to public places, there's only one history being told, and that's why we see the destruction that we see of monuments, because it's not a complete history," he said. "Yes, it is our history, but it doesn't tell the complete story. And what does that do for young Black boys and young Black girls? It takes away their pride. It makes them think that they're inferior. And what does that do for young white boys and young white girls? It gives them the sense of privilege, and that's not right."