Black history is more than Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks

The first time Olani LaBeaud learned in detail about Juneteenth — a day in history that marks the end of slavery in America — was toward the end of high school, in an AP history class.

She was in her first year of college at Cal State Long Beach when she heard about the Tulsa Massacre — a race riot in 1921 when mobs of White residents, some deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed homes, killing more than 800 people and wounding many others.

LaBeaud, who graduated from Summit High School in Fontana in 2017, learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in the classroom and during Black History Month, observed in February. But as a young African American girl, she had to rely on her own curiosity and research skills to discover illustrious figures such as Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was born into slavery, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son in 1828, Truth became the first Black woman to win such a case against a White man.

“Why did I not hear about her in school?,” LaBeaud asks. “What about Ida B. Wells, Toni Morrison and so many others? Why did I have to learn so much on my own?”

Depth, context lacking

LeBeaud is not the only one asking such questions. A year after a nationwide reckoning with racism following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a pandemic that disproportionately killed African Americans, Black students, teachers and activists in Southern California and across the U.S. are demanding better Black history programs in schools. They speak of an urgent need to give Black history the context, depth and meaning it deserves.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, commemorating June 19, 1865, the day Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, who had fought for the Union, led a force to Galveston, Texas, to deliver the message that the war was over, the Union had won and now had the manpower to enforce the end of slavery. This came two months after the Civil War ended and after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

African Americans have traditionally commemorated Juneteenth with readings of the Proclamation, cookouts, food festivals and other activities celebrating African American history and culture.

While many in the community are happy to see Juneteenth formally recognized by the U.S. government, some worry that history lessons say little about the strife and struggle Black people endured after that day and the systemic inequities that took shape in the next century.

A report titled “Inland Empire Black Education Agenda” released by the BLU Educational Foundation in San Bernardino in February, found that Black history was among the top three priorities for Black students and their parents, a finding that came as a surprise even to the study’s authors at the time. The group surveyed 1,100 Black parents, students and community members in the Inland Empire.

A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture showed that U.S. history classrooms devote one or two lessons to Black history. In a 2014 study, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 12 states did not require any instruction on the civil rights movement. Fewer than half covered Jim Crow laws.

The center gave California a B for its history standards, which were adopted in 1998 and recently updated in 2016.

California schools introduce Martin Luther King Jr.’s story in kindergarten in the context of learning about the national holiday named for him. In second and third grades, students learn about Harriet Tubman, who pioneered a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad to rescue and free slaves. The standards call for a deeper dive into slavery around fifth grade.

In eighth grade, teachers are encouraged to discuss resistance by enslaved people and the role slavery played in American politics. In 11th grade, students analyze the development of federal and civil voting rights legislation and landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of schools.

Teaching hard truths

Despite those standards in California, actual teaching practices fall short, said Akilah Lyons-Moore, an assistant professor at USC Rossier School of Education. Students learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, she said, and they learn about slavery, but the racial aspect of slavery is not explicitly taught.

“We move from indentured servitude to slavery to slave trade,” Lyons-Moore said. “But students don’t learn about how color became a way to distinguish who was enslaved and who was free. They learn that the slaves were freed. But they have no idea that the period of reconstruction — what came after Juneteenth — was the deadliest for Black people.”

While slavery “may feel like a long time ago” for some, she said, it doesn’t feel that way for Black people.

“My grandma was born into a sharecropping family,” Lyons-Moore said. “That’s barely two generations ago. And the repercussions are still being felt. You don’t get that from the history that is taught in our classrooms.”

Black history should be introduced in detail at the elementary school level, said the Rev. James Baylark, pastor at First Community Baptist Church in Desert Hot Springs. He says he is working with school districts in the Inland Empire and in Los Angeles County to make that happen.

“I will not say California is any better than other states when it comes to teaching Black history,” he said. “It seems to me that the teaching is limited to Black History Month. It should be talked about every day.”

Catching them young

Even high school students have no idea who Garrett Morgan was, notes Baylark, who is African American. Morgan was an African American inventor whose notable inventions were the traffic signal and the gas mask.

“It seems to me that important facts about Black history are introduced too late,” the pastor said. “By that time, (students have) lost interest. We need to catch them young. And it’s important for all children, not just African American children.”

Elementary school teacher Billy Bush at his home in Yorba Linda, CA, on Friday, June 18, 2021. Bush believes students don’t learn nearly enough about slavery and what happened to Black people after slavery. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

But when African American children, especially, are not taught their history and culture, it leaves a lasting impression on their psyche, said Billy Bush, who teaches history and math at Dr. Mildred Dalton Henry Elementary School in San Bernardino.

“Children’s self worth comes from knowing who they are and where they come from,” he said. “When it comes to education, they don’t seem to be going for depth. They’re trying to cover the bare minimum and move on. African American history needs to be taught in depth. It’s particularly important for Black boys who are seeing themselves on television either as ball players or drug dealers. It’s sad because they are not given a journey or a narrative.”

Real history, real change

Teaching Black history in schools is also a great way to improve race relations, said Bush, whose mother is African American and father is White.

“The only way racism can be overcome is when people understand what’s been done to the oppressed,” he said. “If you teach everyone real history, you will see real change.”

The recent push to teach anti-racism and ethnic studies in public schools is essentially about highlighting the experiences of those whose voices have not been heard so far, Lyons-Moore said.

“In a history class, anti-racism would involve looking at multiple perspectives and understanding the way different people look at the same events,” she said. “There are many things we don’t discuss at school. We don’t teach about lynchings or how the U.S. Postal Service used to make postcards from pictures of lynchings. This is a part of our history we cannot deny.”

Teaching Black history or anti-racism is neither about making White people look bad nor about portraying Black people as victims, Lyons-Moore said.

“It’s really an opportunity to understand each other in a way we haven’t before,” she said. “How do we understand it? How do we see it in our laws, policies and norms? How can we put forth solutions? And above all, how do we keep history from repeating?”