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How teaching Black history in schools became a national controversy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How should students learn about Black history? That question is the source of controversy and tension across the country, including in St. Louis, where a school board will soon vote on new curricula. The board faced criticism last year for rejecting the Black History and Literature classes taught at the district's high schools. The board now says African American studies courses in the upcoming school year should be what it calls politically neutral. St. Louis Public Radio's Chad Davis reports.

CHAD DAVIS, BYLINE: Many people might not know the name of Claudette Colvin. She's a Civil Rights activist who was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., when she was 15. She refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman in 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks would. Colvin's history was one of many things Zoe Abraham, a graduate of Francis Howell High School, says she learned when she took the Black History course last year. Abraham, who's white, spoke before the St. Charles, Mo.-based school board, telling board members that she wouldn't have learned about Colvin without the class.

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ZOE ABRAHAM: None of this was covered in any of my other history classes. There is strength and power in this history.

DAVIS: Lauren Chance, a current senior at one of the district's other high schools, Francis Howell North, is African American. She says the class helped her get more involved in the school's Black student union.

LAUREN CHANCE: It's really opened me up to being a critical thinker, being able to think for myself and formulate opinions for myself.

DAVIS: The district first offered the courses after the George Floyd protest in 2020. The board introduced an antiracism resolution later that year, pledging to create an equitable environment for all students. But when some new board members were elected last year, they rescinded the resolution. They also voted 5 to 2 to uphold the Black History and Black Literature course for the next school year. They said they pulled the electives because the curriculum was partially based off of a standard by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that describes itself as a catalyst for racial justice that works to dismantle white supremacy. Late last year, the board president and superintendent said they wanted to create a politically neutral curriculum.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black voices matter. Black voices matter.

DAVIS: Dozens of chanting students protested the decision to change the courses, walking out of classes in January. Chance says the students wanted the classes to remain the same, the antiracism resolution back and more Black teachers.

CHANCE: I just want to say that, to the board, we are not backing off, and we are not going to be silenced.

DAVIS: The battle over how Black history should be taught has been a hot topic across the country. For example, the College Board altered its Advanced Placement course on African American Studies for high school students after Florida's governor threatened to ban it in its original form. In Missouri, Harry Harris, a Black parent who unsuccessfully ran for the Francis Howell School Board, says its current members still haven't made clear what aspects of the courses they object to.

HARRY HARRIS: They're presenting it like you have students who take this course, and all of a sudden they get Black Panther jackets, and they're marching out in the streets, fists raised and calling for, you know, taking people out and things like that. Nobody's doing that. It's comical that they even think that.

DAVIS: The big change comes when classes begin next school year. Much of the literature class will remain the same. However, the Black history curriculum is different. Unlike the current version, which takes a more analytical approach, with units asking students, for example, how economic policies affected Black wealth, the proposed course focuses more on a chronological approach, presenting information from ancient Africa to the present day. The board is scheduled to vote on the new curricula in March. However, many are worried that the Black History and Literature classes won't come back at all. Across the country, many have been taking matters into their own hands, teaching Black history at local churches and public parks in an effort to preserve it.

For NPR News, I'm Chad Davis in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chad Davis
Chad Davis is a 2016 graduate of Truman State University where he studied Public Communication and English. At Truman State, Chad served as the executive producer of the on-campus news station, TMN Television. In 2017, Chad joined the St. Louis Public Radio team as the fourth Race and Culture Diversity Fellow. Chad is a native of St. Louis and is a huge hip- hop, r&b, and pop music fan. He also enjoys graphic design, pop culture, film, and comedy.