Johnson: A better way to teach young kids about slavery in America's history

A group of Texas educators have proposed to the Texas State Board of Education that slavery should be taught as “involuntary relocation” during second grade social studies instruction.
A group of Texas educators have proposed to the Texas State Board of Education that slavery should be taught as “involuntary relocation” during second grade social studies instruction.
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This is a column by Athens native, Jessica Johnson, a lecturer at The Ohio State University's Lima campus. She is a regular contributor to the Athens Banner-Herald.

The Texas State Board of Education recently rejected a proposal to redefine the term "slavery" as "involuntary relocation" for second grade students.

I suppose the nine educators who pitched this idea had intentions of making a sensitive topic like slavery more palatable for elementary school students under the new, restricted state guidelines prohibiting the use of critical race theory in classroom instruction (Texas House Bill 3979).

I do think that slavery can be explained to young students on a basic level where they can understand the fundamental evils of this immoral institution, but there is no need to alter the name.

In the news: Texas educators propose referring to slavery as 'involuntary relocation' in public schools

If the Texas State Board of Education had approved inserting "involuntary relocation" in place of "slavery," I can imagine the following scenario in which an elementary school teacher has to tone down a lesson on how Africans came to the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Let's say a teacher - we'll hypothetically call her Mrs. Jones - explains to her second graders that West Africans were brought to the colonies for the purpose of working on plantations that produced tobacco and later cotton. In staying within her instructional parameters not to make students feel uneasy, Mrs. Jones glosses over the middle passage - the tragic and brutally inhumane voyage of captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas - and a curious student raises his hand and asks, "How many Africans came to the U.S.?"

If Mrs. Jones truthfully answers and says that approximately 450,000 "involuntary workers" made it here from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a student perceptive enough to ask this question will be clever enough to figure out that there is a little bit more to this involuntary relocation concept.

Intellectual curiosity by students should and will occur in classrooms, and it cannot be stifled within circumvented curricula that many lawmakers, like some in Texas, believe is necessary.

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One of the major points I made in my February CRT commentary is that the dreadful parts of our history surrounding slavery can be told and presented using stories of hope and faith from slaves and former slaves who fought for freedom and even thrived during this time.

For young children who are impressionable, this type of demonstration would show them that in spite of the cruelty and subjugation slaves endured, many still believed in a major tenet from the Declaration of Independence, that God made them worthy of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In February, I used the motivational story of George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery in the mid-1860s and became a renowned agricultural scientist while teaching at Tuskegee Institute in the early 20th century.

Another historical figure that I think would inspire second graders and older elementary school students when learning about slavery would be the story of Jupiter Hammon, the first African American poet to have his works published in the United States.

One of the most interesting facts about Hammon's early life is that he was born into slavery in Lloyd Harbor, New York, in 1711, and his master, Henry Lloyd, allowed him to learn to read and write.

Being born in the North definitely benefitted Hammon in terms of getting an education, and although he remained enslaved throughout his life, his prose gave him a powerful anti-slavery platform that was supported by abolitionist groups including the New York Quakers.

Hammon became a Christian minister and took a prophetic stance on advocating for the freedom of Blacks during the Revolutionary War period, stating, "I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor Blacks, and to pity us."

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Hammon's sermons were criticized many years later by scholars who felt that he assimilated into his master's culture, but Hammon did envision a virtuous transformation of America where whites and Blacks could equally dwell.

Learning about Hammon would provide students with a strong example of a slave who called out America on its moral injustices, although I would not recommend going in-depth about more complex issues during Hammon's era for elementary kids, which would include Black nationalism and political factions (Whig and Loyalist). These topics would be more appropriate for higher grade levels.

Jessica A. Johnson
Jessica A. Johnson

It's very disappointing that there is presently such huge opposition to teaching about the African American experience in our country. Something that has been forgotten in the midst of these educational battlegrounds is that children are intuitive by nature. They deserve historical truth in the classroom and the opportunity to explore difficult subjects suitable for their age groups. Thankfully, the Texas State Board of Education acknowledged this.

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: There are better ways to teach children about slavery in America