There is a long tradition of Black educators fighting attempts to keep America’s true history out of the classroom—one we can all learn from
February 18, 2022
This week, South Dakota’s House of Representatives passed two bills, one targeting the teaching of “divisive concepts” and the other aimed at “protecting” kids from “political indoctrination.” While neither bill mentioned the words “critical race theory,” it was clear what they meant. They followed just a few weeks after the Mississippi Senate passed Senate Bill 2113—another “critical race theory” bill authored by Michael McLendon (R-Hernando)—over the objection of Black lawmakers, who walked out of the chamber in protest. Both of these efforts, along with many others, are part of a nationwide campaign led by conservatives to supposedly rid classrooms of “critical race theory”—a term for a high-level legal discipline that has been used as a cover to ban books by Black and brown authors.
While the obsession over “ critical race theory” is a new manifestation, it represents long-standing efforts to keep Black history—and the perspectives of Black writers—out of the classroom. For many conservatives, the attack on “critical race theory” is rooted in a desire to shield their children from the uncomfortable aspects of history and evade “sensitive” topics such as racism, white supremacy, and inequality. As this wave of anti-Blackness and anti-intellectualism grows, Black educators and their allies must be prepared to oppose these forces, building on a long tradition of Black protest.
For as long as white politicians have employed these tactics, Black educators in the United States have vigorously resisted. Through a myriad of strategies—including creative lesson plans and the production of anti-racist books and articles—Black educators have worked to counter the spread of misinformation and ensure that students have access to texts and perspectives that represent the diversity of the nation—and the world.
During the antebellum era, Black teachers in the North led the charge to ensure that Black students would receive a quality education—despite having limited access to resources. These efforts often required “conscious, vigorous, and sustained acts of defiance and protest,” as historian Kabria Baumgartner recounts in her groundbreaking book In Pursuit of Knowledge, but Black educators were willing to take such risks.
In 1830s Boston, for example, Susan Paul taught at a primary school for Black children where she intentionally included lessons on the evils of slavery and the significance of abolition. Paul brought her students to meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society—an interracial abolitionist organization founded in 1832. She also encouraged her students in the Boston Juvenile Choir to perform songs that extolled abolitionist ideas. Her inclusion of abolitionist materials and her focus on her students’ public comportment represented a direct challenge to the era’s racist propaganda on the capabilities and qualities of Black people—a mission she followed even as she faced threats of violence from white Bostonians at the time.
Paul published the Memoir of James Jackson in 1835 to honor a student of hers who had passed away from tuberculosis. In telling the story of Jackson’s short life, the book also revealed Paul’s pedagogical emphasis on Christian empathy as an opposing force to racial prejudice.
Similarly, Charlotte Forten, a Black educator from Philadelphia, passionately resisted the spread of miseducation in the classroom—and introduced an array of diverse materials to broaden her students’ perspectives. One of the first Black women teachers to be hired to teach in the integrated schools of Salem, Mass., Forten joined the staff of the Epes Grammar School in 1856. Though she only taught in Salem for a few years, she was unwavering in her commitment to nurturing Black students, and in 1862, traveled to the Sea Islands in South Carolina to teach Black children who were recently emancipated by Union forces.
Forten used this opportunity to instruct her students about the life of revolutionary Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. “I told them about Toussaint,” she explained in an 1864 Atlantic Monthly article, “thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race.” This determination to center Black perspectives in the classroom as a counter to stereotypical representations of mainstream accounts guided Black educators in the decades to follow.
In February 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of Black history, devised a strategy to address the failure to teach Black history in classrooms across the nation. By first establishing “ Negro History Week,” Woodson provided an avenue for educators to recognize and celebrate the history of people of African descent in the United States. In so doing, he disrupted educational norms shaped by white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Woodson and members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—the organization he had established several years earlier—created and distributed books, lesson plans, and other curriculum materials to aid teachers across the nation.
Within five years of the program’s creation, 80 percent of Black high schools in the United States were celebrating Negro History Week. According to Jarvis R. Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Woodson’s mission as a scholar “was influenced and made possible by the pedagogical work of black schoolteachers.” These educators had instructed and prepared Woodson’s generation after the end of legal slavery, and a new generation now risked their own personal safety to defy the accepted curriculum by implementing Negro History Week lessons, influencing generations of scholars and activists to follow.
It is in this spirit that the famed scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. The pioneering book, which would go on to shape future writing and research on Reconstruction, was a direct refutation of the false narratives emerging from leading white scholars. Black Reconstruction in America unequivocally challenged the racist Dunning School of historians—named after William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. In their portrayal of Reconstruction (1865–77), the Dunning School scholars, as Du Bois explained, had portrayed the South as victims and the North as having committed a “grievous wrong.” Their writings on the subject treated the free and enslaved Black population with “ ridicule, contempt or silence.”
This framing of the ideals motivating Reconstruction—and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—as a mistake was further propagated in popular media, most notably in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction offered an important counterargument that not only reaffirmed the evils of slavery but also demonstrated the active role enslaved people took in liberating themselves. They were, as Du Bois powerfully demonstrated, not simply the passive recipients of white actions but agents in shaping their own destiny.
This tradition coalesced into the dynamic field of Black Studies during the 1960s and 1970s. As Abdul Alkalimat, one of the founders of Black Studies, points out in The History of Black Studies, the field’s growth is directly tied to the pioneering work of scholars like Woodson and Du Bois. The work of Black educators—combined with other forces, including the civil rights and Black Power movements as well as the vital intellectual space created by historically black colleges and universities—provided the catalyst for the establishment of Black Studies programs and departments.
Freedom Schools, such as those established by organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the rise of Black Power ideology, fundamentally shaped Black college students and challenged mainstream (anti-Black) university curriculums on college campuses and beyond.
Today, we are witnessing an effort to return to an era when Black voices and experiences—along with those of other marginalized groups—were excluded from classrooms. The recent legislative and executive bans on “critical race theory” are designed to intimidate teachers and school districts from teaching accurate representations of American history. As the historical record reminds us, these attempts are not new. But we can draw inspiration from the long line of Black educators and their allies who vigorously worked to overcome these forces in the past.
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a 2022 National Fellow at New America. Along with Ibram X. Kendi, she is the editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019. Her latest book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Twitter: @KeishaBlain