The nationwide racial and social justice demonstrations led by Black Lives Matter in reaction to the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, have led to calls for overhauls in policing, criminal justice and, among other things, school curriculums.

Students have demanded — at protests and with petitions — that schools teach a true history of the United States that includes the racial injustice that has been embedded in American institutions since the country’s founding. One petition on Change.org has more than 20,000 signatures.

This post, written by educators Leslie Fenwick and Chike Akua, speaks directly to this issue. They first explain how they took a group of Rhodes Scholars — a prestigious and highly selective international fellowship program — to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and discovered how little they knew about the subject matter. They write, for example:

During the tour, one of the Rhodes Scholars, a Chicagoan, looked quizzically at a giant wall quote from Ida B. Wells. “Who is that?” he asked. We explained that, among other things, Ida B. Wells documented lynchings and wrote extensively about the white terrorism that blacks experienced in the late 1800s in her book, “The Red Record.” He just shook his head. “My grandmother lived in the Ida B. Wells Homes — a housing project,” he said. “But I never knew who Ida B. Wells was.”

Then they discuss anti-racist curriculums and provide five ways that K-12 and higher education administrators, teachers and students can begin to educate themselves on this subject.

Leslie T. Fenwick is dean in residence at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education and a member of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Scholarly Advisory Committee, which was founded by noted historian John Hope Franklin to help set the museum’s intellectual agenda and exhibition content.

Chike Akua is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Clark Atlanta University who specializes in the sociocultural foundations of education. His dissertation research, “The Life of a Policy,” is the first to examine the formulation and implementation of Florida Statue 1003.42 (2)(h), which requires that students learn the history of African Americans. Akua is also a former Teacher of the Year for Newport News Public Schools in Virginia.

By Leslie T. Fenwick and Chike Akua

Several years ago, we had the privilege of being invited to lead a Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture tour for members of the 2017 Class of Rhodes Scholars. At the time, the class was the most diverse in Rhodes history with a record number of black scholars.

About 20 members of the class gathered on a September morning before their “send-off weekend” — named for the weekend before their collective departure to Oxford University to pursue their graduate degrees. When the group arrived at the museum, we were impressed by their palpable and bright excitement. As we walked through the museum’s Heritage Hall, we mentioned that they were making history that day by being the first Rhodes class to tour the museum.

Our tour began on the lower level of the museum’s history galleries with the transatlantic/European slave trade exhibition. This level commences with a film about the variety of African civilizations highlighting their intellectual and cultural accomplishments and traditions before violent European invasion and subjugation that resulted in enslavement of more than 60 million Africans.

One of the purposes of this exhibition is to upend the nefarious myth about Africa as the dark continent of savages — a myth created by Europeans to justify the brutality of enslavement. The exhibition shows the kingdoms of Ghana, Benin, Songhay and Mali as having sophisticated social systems and cosmologies, elaborate economies and advanced technologies.

From there we weaved through documentation of the transatlantic/European slave trade. We stopped at the memorial wall listing slave ship names, their countries of origin, departure dates, and the number of enslaved souls that embarked and disembarked each ship: “Buen Jesus, Portugal, 12-23-1638, 216/153. Mentor, France, 01-28-17, 700/384. St. Michel, France, 173/1.”

The group of Rhodes Scholars showed an upset pause at the slave ships’ “bright ironical names” (as poet Robert Hayden wrote) such as “Happy,” “Fortune,” “Goodness,” “Honor,” and as scholar Vincent Harding reported, “Justice,” “Liberty," “Gift of God” and the “Good Ship Jesus.”

Next, we went to the Paradox of Liberty exhibition that juxtaposes the idea of natural liberty and human bondage. Here we discussed Thomas Jefferson’s creation and monetization of child slavery in his nailery factory at Monticello. According to Monticello’s historical records, 90 percent of the appraised value of Jefferson's more than 500 acres of plantation property resulted from the monetary value of his enslaved men, women and children.

Our discussion about Jefferson’s wealth being so clearly tied to enslavement of black people led us through the Slavery and the Making of a New Nation exhibition that confirms that enslaved black people — their bodies and free labor — yielded two outcomes for a growing nation: capital necessary for future industrialization and the transformation of a colonial economy into the world’s most dominant and wealthiest economy.

As we discussed this, many of the Rhodes Scholars’ eyes grew wide with simultaneous disbelief and horror when we shared that in 1860 enslaved black people were valued at an estimated $2.7 billion. And that what was happening with the slave economy in the Southern states was not separate and apart from the Northern states.

In fact, Northern banks and financial systems were built on the slave economy. Mechanisms such as mortgages, insurance and financial equity were used in the sale and trade of the enslaved — especially women of child-bearing age.

During the tour, one of the Rhodes Scholars, a Chicagoan, looked quizzically at a giant wall quote from Ida B. Wells. “Who is that?” he asked. We explained that, among other things, Ida B. Wells documented lynchings and wrote extensively about the white terrorism that blacks experienced in the late 1800s in her book, “The Red Record.” He just shook his head. “My grandmother lived in the Ida B. Wells Homes — a housing project,” he said. “But I never knew who Ida B. Wells was.”

By the time we made it to the museum’s Dr. John Hope Franklin Contemplative Court, the scholars’ bright enthusiasm had turned to a reflective disbelief (and anger) about what they had not learned in K-12 schools and the colleges they attended. We had only completed two of the museum’s eight levels. All this even sparked discussion about the life of the vicious colonizer Cecil Rhodes, for whom their scholarly pursuits are named and funded.

We could see the question hanging on many of their faces: How could I be a Rhodes Scholar — among the world’s designated best and brightest — and not know any of this history of my own country?

As former middle school teachers, we knew this question from our students percolated when we deviated from the district’s textbook to teach African civilization as the foundation of world history and integrated black content into Language Arts, math and science. We still remember our middle school students asking the same question on many of the Rhodes Scholars’ faces: Why wasn’t I taught this before?

In a diverse nation still striving to realize the ideals of equality, freedom and self-determination, it is essential that history and the broader school and college curriculums are not a lie. Purposely omitting and misconstruing the essential contributions of black people to world and American civilizations overtly teaches students that Europeans and American white people are the standard bearers of intelligence, inventiveness and industry. This faulty and dangerous assertion helps maintain the rationale for a racialized caste system of haves and have-nots.

Though many have done so, the nation’s teachers should not have to teach themselves about African and African American contributions to world civilization and the nation.

State legislatures can help teachers achieve this goal through statutes and funding. There are six states that have taken up this charge: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and South Carolina. South Carolina was the first to pass relevant legislation in 1984. Florida has the most progressive and comprehensive legislation codified in Florida Statute 1003.42 (2)(h), which requires in every public school district and in every subject area the teaching of:

(H) The history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society.

More and more educators and students are calling for an anti-racist curriculum in K-12 schools (and in colleges and universities such as the United States Military Academy at West Point.)

Anti-racist curriculums cannot simply be an interrogation of whiteness. There must be deep and substantive infusion of black content into K-12 schools and college/university subject area content, required readings, and assignments. The call to “Decolonize Syllabi” is an appropriate one.

Here is how K-12 and higher education administrators, teachers and students can begin this work:

  1. Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
  2. Consult and use the museum’s digitized resources, many of which are explicitly designed for teachers and students.
  3. Revise course syllabi, lesson plans and required reading lists to include the scholarship, research and writing of black scholars and other scholars of color across disciplines and topical areas.
  4. As a professional development exercise and to gather usable K-12 resources, read “Infusion of African and African American Content in the School Curriculum: Proceedings of the First National Conference” by Asa Hilliard.
  5. Work to revise teacher preparation programs to include coursework in African and African American history.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, groups of black K-12 teachers and principals, university professors (such as Carter G. Woodson), Howard University President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, and the famed artist Lois Mailou Jones wrote and illustrated books designed to educate teachers and students about black history. The preface to one of those books, “Word Pictures of the Great,” which was published in 1941, can still guide us:

We must keep lofty ideals before the youth of today, give [them] true history upon which to base [their]aspirations, and help [them] to think, feel, and work toward the fullest and the best that is in [them].

Here’s more to read: