Why educators fail at teaching black history
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When one million have toured the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture and Hidden Figures set box office records while winning NAACP Image Awards, why does the nation’s education system treat black history as a sidebar to American history? 

As an African-American historian, Black History Month is usually a time when I can expect to cringe over the real damage being done to all youth, but especially African-American students, with a history that is not only bad for them, but also bad history.

In 2008, I conducted a poll of California social science teachers for the California Council for the Social Studies to determine what they had presented as Black History Month lessons. Eight of 10 submissions lacked educational merit.

On the other extreme, Black History Month can become an excuse for ideological discussions which are not suited for classrooms such as an anti-Trump curriculum.

Given a choice between stereotypes and polemics, it's no wonder why many principals and teachers choose to duck a subject which could get them on the talk shows.


There is a better way. Districts should approach the subject of race in American life as meticulously as they design mathematics and physics lessons, not leaving the topics or materials up to the option of harried classroom teachers or well-meaning volunteers. It is the most difficult issue in American life and should not be treated as an amateur hour afterthought.


With proper training and planning, schools can provide the same rigor as the African Free Schools in New York, Boston and Philadelphia in the 1700s and 1800s, who taught their students Latin and Greek, producing some of the greatest orators and writers in American history.

While re-enacting the Memorial Discourse of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet on the 152d anniversary, this past Sunday, I was  struck by the oratory and the scholarship as he effortlessly moved from Plato to Socrates to Jefferson and Washington while systematically dismantling the mystique of slavery with his powerful statement "Let the Monster Perish."

Apart from the students in the Harlem school named for him, I gather that most history teachers are not familiar with the name. Another figure of note is Crispus Attucks, the first American to die for the country during the Boston Massacre in 1770.

In California, the date of his martyrdom is a state education holiday, Black American Day, on March 5. Yet most schools do not prepare for or follow the Education Code's mandate to spend the entire day studying the contributions of African-Americans to American history.

The literature is extensive as the 19th century African-American writers were prolific in their depiction of the march towards freedom. George Washington Williams, Alexander Crummell, James McCune Smith are some of the great writers which should be exposed to African-American youth instead of trite pro-slavery math problems.

In my book “Road to Ratification: How 27 States Tackled the Most Pressing Problem in American History”, I found such literature in every state, sometimes in the form of legal briefs and petitions or sermons. I also learned a name that should be on the lips of every black elementary student — John Horse.

The leader of a band of Black Seminoles in Alabama, he successfully outlasted the U.S. Army and won Jesup's Proclamation, a declaration that his constituents would be considered free by the U.S. government. John Horse didn't trust the paper the declaration was signed on, so he took advantage of the opportunity to first move to Indian Territory and then to Mexico, where he became a general in the Mexican Army.

However, President Abraham Lincoln would use Jesup's Proclamation as a precedent for the Emancipation Proclamation as a wartime exercise of power. After the Civil War, he and his party returned to Texas to become the backbone of the Black Seminole Scouts for the U.S. Army.

There are all sorts of geography, algebra and language lessons in John Horse's story.  Let's give teachers the tools to get the history right.


John William Templeton has written the history of African-Americans in the West for the Oxford Encyclopedia of African-American History and the four volume history of African-Americans in California for his ASPIRE SAN FRANCISCO imprint. He is the former editor of the San Jose Business Journal, Richmond Business Journal and the Winston Salem Chronicle. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

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