Founded in 1906, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma was one of the most prosperous African-American communities in the United States, and was nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” However, on May 31, 1921, the community became the target of two days of racial violence, resulting in 300 deaths, 800 injuries, and the destruction of 35 city blocks, leaving 9,000 homeless. The community never recovered, and the survivors and their families never received reparations. Despite the devastating effects, the event was largely unknown to white Americans – and even many Black Americans – until it was portrayed in the first episode of the HBO series Watchmen, premiering nearly a century later. Even showrunner Damon Lindelof did not learn about it until a few years before writing the series.
TV shows like Watchmen are picking up the pieces in covering black history because the American school system has failed to do so. Oklahoma schools weren’t required to teach about the Tulsa massacre until 2002. In 1996, Chris Rock famously joked about how he once failed a Black history class, saying “When you go to white schools you learn about Europe up the ass, but you don’t learn that much about Africa… All I learned in school about being Black was Martin Luther King.” According to Education Week, “Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism… [of which] Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.”
Meanwhile, even schools that do teach Black history usually do it poorly. An analysis by Johns Hopkins University found that coursework often “emphasizes the negative aspects of African-American life while omitting important contributions made by people of color in literature, politics, theology, art, and medicine… Lessons will typically cover slavery and the Civil Rights movement, but omit the Harlem Renaissance, the sociology of the Great Migration, and some of the most important novels of the 20th century.”
Ashley Rogers Berner, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, said that the teachers of these courses lack the resources to adequately cover these topics, often resorting to using Google, Pinterest, and the online marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers. The institute evaluated the English curriculum of various schools in Baltimore – the population of which is 62.4% black – and reported “36% of your secondary school texts are about the African-American experience, but the majority of them are about police brutality and incarceration… You’ve got representation; that’s not the problem. The problem is the tone and the quality and the omissions.”
Educators have also pointed out that curriculums often omit the thriving empires Africans inhabited before they were enslaved by colonizers. American history professor Daina Ramey Berry said “Those that populated the colonies were free people from communities in Africa with large scale civilizations that had tax systems, that had irrigation systems, that had universities – they came from civilized nations that were advanced. That’s where the curriculum should begin, that’s the biggest omission from my perspective. It’s an erasure of culture and heritage so that identities of African Americans for some are that of slaves and those fighting for their freedom.”
Educators like Berry have also criticized the lack of coverage of the Jim Crow laws passed by white politicians that created a racial apartheid from 1877 to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, banning African Americans from voting, attending the same schools as whites, and buying real estate in white neighborhoods. Courses also don’t cover the racial violence inflicted on prospering Black communities during Jim Crow, such as Tulsa or a similar attack waged in Ocoee, Florida the prior year. Florida schools were not required to teach the Ocoee massacre until 2020.
Professor LaGarrett King said it was important to teach about June 19, 1865, called Juneteenth, the day slaves in Texas were first informed they were freed, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He said “What is historically important to white people is not historically important to Black people. July 4, 1776, means nothing historically to Black people.” However, Juneteenth is not widely taught in schools, and in 2020, the Harris Poll found that 48% of Americans were mostly or completely unaware of the holiday.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is among the most vocal and active opponents of teaching Black history in schools. In 2022, DeSantis signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which, among other things, restricted how racism could be taught in the state’s schools. That same year, the College Board introduced its first Advanced Placement course on African-American studies that was set to be implemented in about 60 high schools beginning that fall. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., who served as a consultant for the project, said “These are milestones which signify the acceptance of a field as being quote-unquote ‘academic’ and quote-unquote ‘legitimate.’” The Florida Department of Education rejected the new AP course in early 2023, and shortly after, the College Board significantly reduced the course’s content, including removing “the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism.”
DeSantis was himself a history teacher at the private Darlington School in Rome, Georgia for one year, after he graduated from Yale but before he attended Harvard Law School. In 2022, a black former student of his alleged that “in history class, he was trying to play devil’s advocate that the South had good reason to fight [the Civil War], to kill other people, over owning people – Black people. He was trying to say, ‘It’s not OK to own people, but they had property, businesses.’” Another student claimed that DeSantis’ defense of the Confederacy was so widely known among students that he became the subject of satirical videos.
DeSantis and many other conservative politicians and activists claim that teaching America’s history of racism would instill in young minds a hatred of their country. However, CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw said being open about this history simply teaches Americans to “pay attention to what has happened in this country, and how what has happened in this country is continuing to create differential outcomes so we can become that country that we say we are… [CRT] is not anti-patriotic. In fact, it’s more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the 13th and the 14th and the 15th amendment[s]. We believe in the promises of equality, and we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.”