Fourth-graders in my kid’s school study slavery by running from classroom to classroom in a mock-up of the Underground Railroad, the series of secret trails and safe houses that helped spirit about 30,000 enslaved people from the South to freedom in the North and Canada.
Children across America are acting out similar tableaus as part of a nod toward teaching them about slavery during Black History Month.
But such role-playing is more frequently becoming the target of criticism.
The past week alone, schools in Loudoun County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., were admonished for playing the Underground Railroad game. And some Rock Hill, S.C., parents were enraged to discover their 10-year-olds were taught to pick cotton as part of a class field trip.
At issue, say some Louisiana educators, is the superficial way the schools teach slavery.
Because the topic is so awkward, instruction lacks historical context and fails to delve too deeply into the nation’s difficult past, according to a half-dozen Baton Rouge teachers and an assistant principal who have a lot to say about the subject but fear doing so in public. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the union, also could not find someone willing to talk on the record.
“Almost anything you say could alienate someone,” said Gary L. Jones, a former history teacher in Monroe who is president of the elected Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE sets the overall curriculum goals for the 719,215 public school students, 43 percent of whom are African American, but the individual school districts set their own emphasis.
“The long list of contributions African-Americans have made throughout history to our way of life are certainly more important than slavery,” Jones said. “But I would not disagree that we should also educate our students on the institution (of slavery) and what it has meant to the foundation of our nation.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center says the American schools are graduating students who don’t know much about history.
How many U.S. presidents owned slaves? The answer is 12, including eight while in office.
Teaching Hard History - American Slavery by the Southern Poverty Law Center
How many states allowed slavery during the American Revolution? The answer is all of them, which makes the institution not so peculiar to the South.
Only 8 percent of the nation’s high school seniors identified slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, according to study released last year by the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project. More than two-thirds of the nation’s high schoolers didn’t know the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery.
More importantly, the "Teaching Hard History: American Slavery" report found that nearly four of every five high school seniors didn’t know that slavery was specifically protected in the nation’s founding documents. And schools did nothing to link the white superiority spin used to rationalize enslavement of black people to present-day beliefs about race.
“It’s clear that the United States is still struggling with how to talk about the history of slavery and its aftermath,” the report states.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, the state’s second-largest school system, slavery is first introduced, but not explicitly taught, in 4th-grade lessons asking students to examine the relationship between early American colonists and regional geography.
Teachers are instructed to say: “Slavery in the Americas started long before the United States even existed and continued all the way until the Civil War ended in 1865. Today, we will connect how geography influenced the adoption of slavery in southern colonies,” according to district-level class plans found in the local schools. They compare Plymouth and Jamestown colonies.
Teachers can display a map of the transatlantic slave trade and ask: “Where did slaves come from?” They can show pictures from The Middle Passage.
In the 5th grade, Baton Rouge public school students — parochial schools follow similar teaching guidelines — examine the economic interdependence between regional colonies and other countries. It’s during this class that students consider colonial realities that relied on slavery.
Seventh-graders read Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 Inaugural Address. And Baton Rouge 8th-graders hear about slavery in Louisiana. They read the ordinance the state used to secede.
Linda Johnson, a Plaquemine civil rights activist who served on BESE for 12 years, said schools need to do a better job of teaching that for all the good in America, the country was initially built with heredity slavery based on skin color. The residuals of slavery continue to be seen in high poverty rates, single-parent families and mass incarceration.
“Our failure to address a legacy of enslavement and racial oppression makes the us ill-equipped to deal with present-day injustices and challenges,” she added.