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The Contours of Black Studies in American Public Schools

Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post about the history of Ethnic Studies in American public schools at the K-12 level. He points to 1960s and 70’s student activism in the United States as the impetus for the creation of Black Studies and Ethnic Studies courses. In chronicling the fall of Black Studies in public schools, Zimmerman claims, “…many of the classes fizzled quickly, in part because students found them boring. Schools struggled to locate qualified teachers for these subjects, which were rarely addressed in their pre-service training. And course materials were hastily prepared, as districts strained to meet the sudden demand. The classes often devolved into a litany of heroes and holidays, dutifully repeated each year.”

This account of Black Studies makes some questionable assumptions and ignores some important context. For one, Zimmerman’s account suggests that Black Studies emerged out of nowhere in the 1960s. However, we know that Carter G. Woodson, a founding member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), started Negro History Week in 1926. Woodson created and disseminated materials to teachers every year in segregated Black schools throughout the South. This continued for decades until the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decisions and the onset of school desegregation.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Black students desegregated white schools. As a result, Black schools closed while white schools did not. Some Black teachers desegregated white schools with their students. However, many Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs or faced demotion. As a result, not only were Black students entering predominantly white, anti-Black spaces, but they were often doing so without the guidance and help of Black adults at the school. To compound the challenge of navigating a hostile space, the school curriculum failed to acknowledge or accurately represent the Black experience. So, during the late 1960s, when Black high school students protested inequitable education, they sought comprehensive reform including the desegregation of the curriculum. For example, Black students in Charlottesville, Virginia—many of whom had participated in Negro History Week during their elementary and middle school years in segregated schools—sought the creation of  a “Negro history course.”

In response to the students’ demands, schools and their districts enacted some reforms including the creation of Black Studies elective courses. Zimmerman’s account suggests that schools wanted these courses to be successful, but they just lacked the teachers and resources to make them so, This assumes good faith in schools where bad faith permeated most policy. These were the same schools that failed to provide an equitable education to all students during the process of school desegregation. These were the same districts that fired and demoted Black teachers when they closed segregated Black schools. And, finally, these were the same schools that ignored Negro History Week and the Black experience in the curriculum until students made them take notice. So, while it might be true that some students viewed the courses as boring, it seems even more accurate to say that schools and their districts did not want these courses to be engaging and dynamic. Based on what we know about some of the teachers who taught Black history, Zimmerman’s account offers a narrow view into the history of Black Studies in K-12—a history, to this point, that has not been well-documented.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives