Learning our country’s history is about more than reading a dusty book detailing the who, what, and when in America’s story. History is about exploring identity – who are we? Who are we becoming? What have we been through? What have we overcome?
Learning from a diversity of voices and experiences throughout history can play a central role in understanding that identity. But the presence (or lack) of black history can shape a student’s experience in the classroom, according to University of Missouri professor LaGarrett King, who researches how black history is taught and interpreted in schools and in society.
Children need to see the humanity in each other, King said. Their history classes can forge the lens through which students see classmates who don’t look like them.
“If you understand someone who’s ‘other’ from you from history, it makes you kind of look at them a certain way in the present,” he said. “Are they going to think about non-white people as less than because the history curriculum tells them that non-white people were less than? That they were not that important to American democracy? That only white people, or particularly white men, are the most important people in history?”
Teaching Alabama’s black history
Nationwide, historians, educators and journalists are demanding that African American history no longer be segregated into Black History Month or glossed over in lessons about the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, these critics say the contributions, skills, inventions and resilience of black Americans should be integrated throughout the timeline of American history.
Alabama is abundant with opportunities to spotlight these historical roles due to its proximity to black history: Montgomery alone had more slave depots than churches at the dawn of the Civil War in 1861. Many men and women helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he rose to national prominence on Alabama soil. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was the precursor of the national Black Panther Party.
Teaching Alabama’s black history with depth and woven throughout a history course depends heavily on teacher knowledge and how individual educators interpret the state’s Social Studies Course of Study standards, which tells teachers the bare minimum students have to learn in each grade. The decade-old standards have received praise for including black history throughout kindergarten through 12th grade, but need improvement when it comes to teaching slavery. Because social studies isn’t tested by the state as rigorously as math and reading, history is more likely to be placed on the back burner, leading to a decrease in accountability.
Nettie Carson-Mullins visits school districts as a social studies education specialist for the Alabama State Department of Education. She says there are districts in predominantly black areas in the state, such as Birmingham and Selma, who have been teaching black history in depth and throughout American history. But she said, “there are many places in Alabama that don’t teach black history beyond the standards.” Carson-Mullins couldn’t identify those areas because the state doesn’t keep or report this kind of data.
The Alabama State Department of Education has staff members like Carson-Mullins who travel to school districts to provide professional development on meeting the curriculum standards. But whether an educator chooses to teach black history or weave it into their curriculum in depth is up to the individual teacher and district.
“We don’t tell the school districts what to do. We don’t have a gavel in our hand hollering at them. All of them are autonomous structures,” Carson-Mullins said. “A lot of (the districts) have elected officials and when you have elected officials, the people in the area decide what is to be taught.”
‘The history we are being taught right now is not complete’
With historical documents and books scattered in front of them, Central High School students are helping complete the narrative of Alabama’s history by investigating and archiving Tuscaloosa’s black history. With the guidance of University of Alabama Professor John Giggie and graduate student Margaret Lawson, they were trained to become their own historians in an elective course titled “The History of Us.”
The teens are using their skills to investigate the 11 black men who were murdered in Tuscaloosa County at a time when an epidemic of racial terror lynchings plagued the state between 1884 and 1933. While the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery erected a historical marker in 2017 recognizing eight of the victims, the students want to uncover the stories of their lives beyond the details of their deaths.
Central High School junior Brandon Walton is around the same age Cicero Cage when he was lynched in 1919. A well-known white girl accused 17-year-old Cage of pulling her off her horse and riding off with the animal. Those allegations — theft and a black male physically touching young white female — angered white residents. A white mob kidnapped Cage and hung him.
Cage’s father, Sam, found his body with his throat cut to pieces.
It’s up to Walton to put together the fragments of Cage’s story. He and his 17 classmates have scavenged through the files at W.S. Hoole Special Collections on UA’s campus to hunt down any clues that could humanize the victims. They are trying to figure out where their victims worked, who they married, the names of the children. Through census research, Walton found out Cage was one of five siblings.
By the end of the school year, the students will memorialize the victims’ lives through a digital project which will be paired with photo essays of black Tuscaloosans who opposed lynching. By archiving black experiences, voices and stories of resiliency, Walton and his classmates are playing a role in making sure all voices are heard in history.
“The word African American has the word American in it. So the history we are being taught right now is not complete,” Walton said.
According to the course of study, high school sophomores and juniors are required to take U.S. history, which is split between two time periods. Sophomores study the history that occurred before the industrial revolution and juniors focus on the time after the industrial revolution.
Lynching isn’t explicitly mentioned in the social studies standards in 10th grade. But an educator can — if they choose to — incorporate it into their lesson when they reach standard No. 15, which focuses on the emergence and impact of Jim Crow during the Reconstruction.
Walton said he didn’t know what lynching was before he enrolled in the “History of Us” class. So he researched the definition on his own and immediately signed up for the course.
“I said, ‘This class is going to be interesting,” he said. “I saw this as an opportunity to learn about my culture and my history.”
Interviews with college and post-secondary level history students across state have illustrated the need to teach Alabama’s black history with depth. The “History of Us” class is a high-school version of a course offered by Giggie to college students at UA. Over the years, Giggie has heard from his students who wish they’d learned this history earlier. So, he coproduced the class along with UA education graduate Margaret Lawson to meet that need.
“We just see through our own experience that, more often than not, black history is not being incorporated in U.S. history in a way that students find engaging, meaningful and that prepares them for when they go off to college or when they go off to their careers to talk about these issues with their communities,” Lawson said.
In order to do that, the state has to reckon with the way it portrayed itself in the past.
Romanticizing the South
Jermelle Matthews was baptized in black history while growing up deep in Black Belt in Perry County. Not only did she learn black history beyond King and Rosa Parks, she also grew up in an African Methodist Episcopal Church – a denomination that credits its roots to black liberation. Matthews said growing up in this oasis of black knowledge led her to seek more information.
She received a culture shock when she arrived at Auburn University. Black history was no longer a subject that saturated the ecosystem of her educational career. It was separated into different courses, she said.
Matthews now tours the state to help teachers implement a free digital course called “306: African American History” as the Alabama schools manager for an education tech company known as EVERFI. The supplemental course allows students to evaluate how the contributions of African Americans have impacted society throughout history. It also names some of the unsung contributors of history such as Bayard Rustin, the gay activist who taught King MLK about the power of nonviolent protests. He was also the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King made his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. The course is for students taking U.S. history in 10th and 11th grades and English Language Arts classes in seventh and eighth grade.
EVERFI made an intense effort to inform all Alabama schools about this course. NBA Hall-of-Famer and Alabama native Charles Barkley sent a letter expressing his support for 306 to all high school and middle school principles. The company then went out and met with school districts’ history directors before meeting history teachers who were interested in implementing the course.
Of the 820 Alabama middle and high schools who are eligible to participate in the EVERFI course, 12 percent of them have implemented the course since its release three years ago. More of the state’s predominantly black middle and high schools are participating in the program than in the state’s majority white middle and high schools. However, there multiple digital resources a district can use to teach black history.
As Matthews helps teachers implement the course into their classrooms, she sees a need to challenge the rosy-lensed view of South – a region known for its southern hospitality and where saying “no, ma’am, yes, ma’am” is a golden rule. These anecdotes conceal the racial tension that exists in how schools teach Alabama’s history.
The romanticized depiction of Alabama can be found in past history textbooks. The 1957 textbook “Alabama History for Schools,” was highlighted in a Washington Post story for painting enslavers in a saintly light which continued the narrative that slavery wasn’t that bad.
The text’s slavery chapter touts that “slaves were better off than free laborers” and that slavery was the “earliest form of social security.” The book brags that while the enslaved “was badly treated as a rule in the foreign slave trade, he was generally very well treated very well by Alabama farmers.” The book was used for ninth grade Alabama history classes throughout the 50s and 60s.
Romanticizing the South is a concern historians have pointed out before, especially in popular works portraying the Antebellum south, such as “Gone With the Wind.” The 1939 movie has received multiple criticisms for portraying the enslaved as happy with their oppression, which was one of the ways slavery was justified.
“A lot of those underlying racial issues and racial tension kind of gets glossed over because we have romanticized what the South is, especially after the antebellum era,” Matthews said. “We tend to couple these monumental moments in history and we just put it all together. So think of (Martin Luther) King. That’s all (they learn) of Jim Crow. That’s all (they learn) of Civil Rights. That’s everything taught through this one man.”
The results of reversing the trend inspires students to become participatory citizens. According to pre– and post-class surveys conducted by EVERFI, 83% of the estimated 8,700 Alabama students who took the course said they are more likely to vote and 82% said they are not afraid to stand up for what is right. Matthews believes allowing students to see what African Americans have endured and their contributions throughout history inspires civic engagement.
It was this version of history that diluted Chelisa Ford’s black history education. Years before she started teaching ninth grade world history at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, she was a student at a predominantly-white high school in northeast Alabama where her history teacher once told her: “’Well, you know, blacks sold other blacks into slavery.’”
“He said it almost in a justified way,’” Ford said.
As a black student herself, black history was mostly absent during her schooling. She barely remembers any assignments about black individuals. Most, if not all, of her black history lessons came from church.
Attending the historically black Alabama State University in Montgomery changed all of that for her. It’s where she learned how to access slave schedules and about West African griots who have been preserving their community’s history, oral traditions and genealogy since the 13th century.
Although the standards for ninth grade world history doesn’t explicitly mentions griots, Ford says the information slips out of her while teaching anyway. She has an appetite to seek new information for her class. She obtained a copy of the 1619 Project through the Southern Poverty Law Center and is seeking different ways to incorporate series in her own curriculum.
Every February, Ford said the 91 percent black student body of Jefferson Davis high celebrates Black History Month by watching steps shows, wearing African clothing and hearing from black service organizations at school named after the president of the confederate states.
It’s a moment that puts it all in perspective for Ford – how she is fighting oppression through education.
“I felt as though growing up, it was about justifying slavery and that was pretty much it,” Ford said. “We just talked about slavery and civil rights and the struggle part of it. But there is a lot more to black history, like getting into the African culture.”
LaGarrett King said teachers need to find ways to bring up black history beyond slavery, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. He said students could miss out on context when they receive a narrow view of the black experience.
“We don’t really explore all the things that led up to the Civil Rights Movement,” King said. “So if a teacher is not that educated about black history, and they just approached enslavement and reconstruction and then the civil rights movement, it may seem like black people only got fed up in the 1950s and 1960s and they never fought back before.”
Blake Busbin, a 10th grade U.S. history teacher at Auburn High School and Alabama’s 2017 history teacher of the year, avoids this by highlighting black voices following his lesson about the 1877 Compromise.
To refresh the memory for readers who haven’t taken history in a while, the agreement between southern Democrats and Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes secured Hayes’ presidential win, but it also led to the expulsion of federal troops who were keeping racial oppression at bay in the South. The compromise marks the end of the Reconstruction and the beginning of an era plagued by systemic racial violence and discrimination.
But, as students learn from Busbin, there were many black southerners at the time who fought against the oppression. In the classroom, they examine the debate between Booker T. Washington – first president of what is now Tuskegee University – and W.E.B. Du Bois about how to produce black prosperity during a time of intense prejudice. The students studied about Ida B. Wells. Formerly enslaved in Mississippi, Wells forged an anti-lynching campaign through her series of investigative journalism. Then there is Isiah Montgomery, who founded the thriving, all-black city of Mound Bayou by the Mississippi Delta in 1887.
The point of these stories, Busbin said, is to show students how the movement towards civil rights was advancing decades before the 50s and 60s.
“I try to help students understand that there was a Civil Rights Movement that had already begun. We’re just not going to see it at its peak until later.” Busbin said. “But there are people who don’t surrender who are still fighting to correct the wrongs that were going on.”
Rather than rely on textbooks’ glazed-over accounts of history, Busbin’s students evaluate primary resources – the letters, documents, poems and prose that can give students different views of the past. If history is about identity then black history is part of the identity, Busbin said.
“I’ve always kind of joked with the students that, unfortunately, a lot of the textbooks see history as a very much a political, military narrative, especially in early American history,” Busbin said. “You’re taught about George Washington, your first presidents and the story of dead white guys, when it’s more than just dead white guys.”
Studying slavery in the Cotton state
Alabama’s history curriculum standards are the second-oldest when compared to surrounding states. It’s been ten years since they were fully revised. Mississippi and Tennessee schools implemented renewed social studies standards this year. Georgia’s are two years old. Florida’s social studies standards were implemented in 2008.
A new social studies course of study was supposed to be created last year for Alabama. But due to fierce debates surrounding Common Core math, renewal was pushed back to next year. Alabama law states that course of study standards should be renewed from “time to time,” but a specific time frame isn’t mentioned. The Alabama Department of Education said there is an attempt to update courses of study every six or seven years, but it can be delayed due to budgeting and other courses of study.
Despite its age, Alabama’s social studies standards have received both compliments and criticisms from Teaching Tolerance, a program through SPLC which has been promoting culturally diverse education for 30 years. In 2014, Alabama scored a B during Teaching Tolerance’s examination of how the Civil Rights Movement was included in state standards nationwide.
Historians said facts about the Civil Rights Movement were well-sequenced across grade levels, and the Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX) was identified as one of nine notable state resources. The site features more than 200 lesson plans, podcast, activities and other materials for the civil rights movement.
The state however received multiple criticisms in Teaching Tolerance’s 2018 report “Teaching Hard History,” which focused on slavery. The program evaluated different state standards with 10 key elements of knowledge, one of them being that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Alabama’s standards require students to identify sectionalism, slavery, states’ rights and economic disagreements as the reasons why Alabama succeeded from the union.
Teaching Tolerance said this teaching obscures the institution of slavery’s influence on factors like sectionalism, states’ rights and economic disagreements. The program also criticized the way the standards introduces key figures who were enslaved, such as Harriet Tubman, in third grade without explicitly requiring teachers to mention what the enslaved endured.
Setting strong standards for the Civil Rights Movement, but not for slavery, means students are learning history without context, Teaching Tolerance Managing Editor Monita Bell said.
“Students are not getting a comprehensive education of American history and the connection between slavery and modern movements for racial justice,” Bell said.
Carson-Mullins said the Alabama State Department of Education’s rebuttal for reports like Teaching Tolerance’s is that the interpretation of the standards depends on who is looking at them. She said there is so much in one standard because they are so broad. There are multiple places in the standards where black history is implied, Carson-Mullins said.
For example, the standards do not explicitly mention convict leasing. But an educator can choose to talk about it in depth during 11th grade U.S. history while teaching standard two, which requires students to “evaluate social and political origins, accomplishments, and limitations of Progressivism.”
A booming Alabama industry and a legal system that overwhelming targeted black citizens created an environment for convict leasing to occur on farms and lumberyards. Most of the prisoners labored in coal mines around the Birmingham area.
Many historians view the convict leasing system as an evolution of slavery since many of the black prisoners were whipped for insubordination or trying to escape. Alabama was the last state to abolish convict leasing in 1928.
But whether convict leasing is mentioned in the classroom is the teacher’s choice and depends on how much a teacher knows about the history of that time period.
“Everything is left up to the districts,” Carson-Mullins said. “We don’t tell them what do.”
Understanding slavery is the core of the tenth grade U.S. history course, according to Busbin. Slavery is mentioned 10 times in total in the state course of study. More than half of those standards are in tenth grade history.
In his Auburn classroom, Busbin preludes his Civil War unit by spending several days with his students learning about enslavement. He says the standards cover slavery as an economic system instead talking about how life was like for the enslaved.
The standards also assume students already know what slavery is, he said.
This can shape their thinking about slavery in two ways, Busbin said. It could cause them to think slavery wasn’t that bad for the enslaved. There is also the idea that students would automatically see slavery as an evil institution without realizing how dedicated the country was to slavery, Busbin said.
“A lot of my students are like, ‘Oh, the Constitution had that slave trade agreement. So, the slave trade must have ended at 1807.’ And I am like, ‘Not really,'” Busbin said.
So Busbin’s students dig through primary documents detailing the slave experience in a way that goes beyond the economic system. This includes excerpts of slave narratives so students could how enslaved men and women resisted slavery.
Understanding slavery is the core of the tenth grade U.S. history course, according to Busbin. Slavery is mentioned 10 times in total in the standards. More than half of those mentions are in tenth grade history.
“If students have a superficial, naive understanding of what slavery is, then the meaning of the Civil War, the meaning of all these events leading up to it and the meaning of what is to come after the Civil War is essentially lessened because you don’t understand what slavery is,” Busbin said. “And so, we work quite a lot on trying to make sure we have a firm grasp of its institution, its economic role and most importantly, its role in race relations and racial identity that is to come.”
But delving into the subject of slavery with this much intensity relies on a teacher’s knowledge and their comfort level on the subject.
Educators told Teaching Tolerance they believe teaching slavery is necessary, but the violence and dehumanizing nature of enslavement makes it hard for teachers – especially white educators – to have open and honest discussions about racial violence in the classroom. Out of the 45,812 teachers working in Alabama schools, 77 percent are white and 18 percent are black.
As a white history educator at a high school that’s 64 percent white and 21 percent black, Busbin worries about offending students by not giving slavery and its legacy the attention it deserves. He opens the floor for student comments before they begin their studies into enslavement, and together they set expectations.
“I think this conversation puts all of us at some level of respect for one another in our study as well as create an awareness for the struggles we may collectively encounter,” Busbin said.
Several years ago, a black female student used that opportunity to meet with Busbin before class. She asked that he not say the “n word” while reading historical documents aloud.
“She explained that while she recognizes it is language in an historical document, she never wants to be subject to hearing a white male use the word in her presence,” Busbin said. “I assured her that she need not worry.”
The state board of education does send professional development opportunities to school districts asking administrators to pass the information along to their social studies and English language arts teachers. For example, to celebrate the state’s bicentennial in December, the African-American Heritage Committee fronted an effort to author a 244-page book documenting both legendary and unsung heroes of Alabama’s black history.
The book, “The Future Emerges From the Past,” functions as an encyclopedia of information that includes black people, spaces, events and historically black colleges and universities that contributed to Alabama’s history. The goal is to try to place one copy of the book in every school in an effort to spread localized black history across the state.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said the state is trying to provide more resources for teachers but the state’s reach stops there. It is up to the districts to share the information, and it’s the teacher’s decision whether use the resources.
“The minimum a teacher has to do is teach the state standards,” Mackey said. “As far as following up on that, we don’t send monitors into classrooms to see what’s being taught. We respect the professionalism of our teachers to teach the standards.”
Accountability across the states
Alabama’s accountability looks different when compared to surrounding states.
In 2013, the Alabama Board of Education decided to discard high school graduation exams, which tested English composition, Algebra, biology and social science, which includes history. Busbin oversaw his district’s graduation exam preparation program at the time. Busbin said the social science graduation exams tested material up to World War II, meaning standards focusing on the Civil Rights Movement weren’t included in the exam.
Since the end of the graduation exams, Busbin said there was a noticeable decrease in accountability from the state to ensure each standard is taught. In his district, teachers had to fill out a form confirming what dates they taught which history standards before the end of the graduation exams. This year, he worked with other educators in his department to develop common evaluations for students that were based on areas of focus the teachers agreed upon.
Some states have beefed up their accountability measures for history. In September, the Florida Board of Education approved a new rule requiring school districts to annually report to the state how they are complying with a 1994 state law requiring educators to teach the Holocaust and black history. The board’s vote occurred a couple of month after a Florida high school principal caught national headlines for saying in a 2018 email that students could opt-out of a Holocaust course because he believed the genocide of around six million Jews didn’t actually happen, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Mississippi State Department of Education voted in January to keep U.S. history graduation exam for high school juniors despite calls to eliminate the exam. Those who wanted to keep the exam said the test keeps educators accountable to teach the state’s social studies standards, the Associated Press reported. Mississippi law mandates that children about Civil Rights in depth across all grade levels. The exam measures students’ proficiency in U.S. History, which is included in a school’s report card.
Georgia’s fifth, eight, U.S. History and economics students are tested in social studies at the end of the school year. Tennessee students also test for U.S. history in high school and social studies in sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
When it comes to social studies, Alabama’s law requires the teaching of U.S. and Alabama history. State officials say history is mentioned on the civics exam that high school seniors pass in order to graduate. The civics test is identical to the U.S. citizenship test, in which slavery is mentioned in one question, the Civil Rights Movement is mentioned in two questions, and the Confederacy is mentioned in one question. History is the only subject in Alabama that doesn’t have a its own test on a state-level. Seniors have to get 60 out of the 100 questions correct in order to graduate.
“Content knowledge it needs to come first.”
Busbin’s self-taught path to learning this often-overlooked information is fueled by a passion to learn both slavery and other aspects of black history. He attends multiple professional development opportunities and seeks educational resources that help him teach topics centering on diversity in the classroom.
Gaining that extra knowledge is a lot, Busbin said. But it’s necessary work to teach black history throughout the timeline of a history course.
“I feel to have a passion for what you’re about to teach. You’ve got to have a depth of knowledge to discover the richness of what you’re about to transfer to the student,” Busbin said. “As a teacher, I firmly believe that content knowledge has to be acquired before you build a meaningful lesson for that content. So the content knowledge it needs to come first.”
“The History of Us” students are making sure that content is visible.
The class made another researching trip to the University of Alabama last Thursday. The clues that will help them humanize the men who were lynched seem to hard find, they say. But they aren’t giving up.
Central High student Ambrose McCoy thinks it’s a shame that white history fills his textbooks, but the information they are seeking about black Alabamians is so hidden.
In his blog for the class he wrote: African American history is very powerful because once you get deep into it – even if you feel like you won’t be able to find the information – you will always be able to pull a message or something from history…I have also learned that American history and African American history both can tie into each other. It’s just one is harder to find than the other and more hidden than seen.
But not anymore. Not while they are still researching.
Reteaching Black History is a series that examines how Alabama teaches its black history. You learn how slavery myths get their start in elementary school by clicking here. It was produced with support from Press On and the Freedomways Reporting Project, a fellowship program for journalists in the U.S. South whose reporting advances justice. Join the Black Magic Project’s Facebook group, where we talk about issues and topics affecting black Alabamians.