Feb 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

HBCU presidents: Black history lessons are being "stifled"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Nearly 70 years since Brown vs. Board of Education ended racial segregation in schools, most Black history lessons taught across America are insufficient and under attack, several presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities tell Axios.

Why it matters: There's been a renewed and fierce debate around the role of race — and, specifically, Black history — in school curricula as states propose measures to curtail the teaching of the country's racial past.

"I think it's being stifled," Howard University president Wayne Frederick said of Black history curricula in schools.

  • "They’re trying to erase not just the history of those things happening to African Americans, but really the American history," Frederick told Axios. "We have to take a fuller stand and be bold that this is American history — and it's not going away just because you don't tell people or limit who knows about it."
  • Black educators are also facing an escalating atmosphere of racial hostility. On Tuesday, the first day of Black History Month, over a dozen HBCUs were forced to close and cancel classes after receiving bomb threats.
  • It was the second day this week and third in the past month that numerous HBCUs had received such threats.

The big picture: In conversations with presidents and academics from five HBCUs, three themes emerged as to why they believe the teaching of Black history in schools remains insufficient:

1) It's usually taught only during Black History Month, which makes it an incomplete lesson at best.

  • “First thing we have to recognize is that it's not taught the same everywhere," Morehouse College President David A. Thomas told Axios. "In many places, Black history is something that's taught once a year during the month of February."

2) Black history is almost always taught as being separate from American history and even global history.

  • “You cannot tell America’s history without telling the history of Black folks in this country, so it's beyond an academic experience,” Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson said.

3) Black history education should extend beyond the classroom — and needs to include other forums like special museums, churches, exhibits and events.

  • “We have to make sure we expose people to all those other venues where Black folks can learn the details of their history or those who want to learn about Black history in general," Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson told Axios.
  • "I just don't think we can depend on one system or one process to tell the Black experience.”

What they're saying: Some educators also want to reduce the focus on the usual high-profile figures. Frederick told Axios that Black history lessons should include education about everyday Black heroes throughout the years — not just a handful of iconic Black figures.

  • The lessons should include "men and women who’ve had the African American experience and who’ve done amazing things," he said, pointing to the late Dr. LaSalle Leffall Jr. — the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.
  • Tuskegee University president Charlotte Morris said some lessons can be incomplete or misguided: "Most times, it is not taught by individuals who believe that African Americans contributed anything to history, and thus the contributions are downplayed, or credited to some other person who is not Black."
  • And some lessons ignore or downplay the more shameful aspects of our country's history with the mistreatment of Black people, Thomas said: "We haven't learned how to teach the aspects of it that speak to the brutality that accompanies the psychology of white supremacy in our country."

What to watch: Some HBCUs are trying to show how Black history can be taught more completely outside the classroom.

  • At Tuskegee, Black history lessons are integrated into extra-curricular activities — including seminars, symposiums, fairs, lyceum series, and conferences that "are designed to highlight the excellence of Black History and immerse our students into the rich and complex facets of Black History," Morris said.
  • Howard University's Black history education includes activities like book clubs and engaging with alumni doing good work in their communities.
  • "We should teach lessons of how we improved and moved forward, and empower young people to realize that if they don't open their minds, we will end up back there and repeat history," Frederick said.

Go deeper:

New rules are limiting how teachers can teach Black History Month

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