There's a recent painting that sums up what's happening to public education in Virginia: A white man, white paint roller in hand, is covering up Black historical figures—Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X—their bodies whitewashed, faces stoic.
The piece by Detroit artist Jonathan Harris, titled "Critical Race Theory," stuck with Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor at Norfolk State University, a Historically Black University, since she first saw it online.
Among the changes was a new statewide elective African American history class for high schoolers, through which students learned about topics like Virginia's slave codes and the founding of local Black colleges. Students taking the elective have created podcasts, books, and even presented at a global U.N. conference. It is one of a handful of Black history courses implemented in states like Florida, Kentucky, and Texas, after the short-lived racial reckoning of 2020.
In 2021, the commission also recommended professional development by way of cultural-competency training and African American history instruction for every K-12 history teacher. Last session, the General Assembly enshrined into law those trainings to help prepare educators to teach Black history. The trainings were supposed to be phased in over the next few years.
Educators and community members said in public comment and listening sessions that these curriculum revisions were a long time coming.
Litia Turner, a then-rising junior at Goochland High School, 30 miles outside of Richmond, called on the Virginia Department of Education in a July 2020 letter to include Juneteenth in the curriculum. Turner, who is Black, said students are taught a version of the past that is "less gruesome"—for example, in the previous curriculum, slavery was depicted as an economic necessity—and that in order to move forward, the past must be recognized, no matter how uncomfortable. Now, because of the commission's recommendations, Virginia students learn about Juneteenth in Kindergarten. As of October 2020, it became a state holiday.
For Black families, these changes were a breath of fresh air during the summer of 2021 as white parents flocked to school board meetings in droves to speak out against critical race theory, even though the theory requires a collegiate-level framework that was never in place for K-12 classrooms.
All of this progress happened under Governor Ralph Northam, a term-limited Democrat who spent much of his tenure championing racial equity, in part because a picture that revealed him wearing Blackface resurfaced early on in his term. Instead of yielding to pressure to resign, Northam met with Black leaders across the state to listen and take action, including creating the African American History Education Commission.
But then, an election.