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Teaching that confronts the legacies of slavery

The weekend of Easter and Passover seems a suitable moment to reflect on the nation’s “original sin.’’ The United States asserted its independence in 1776 by declaring “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights…” And yet, the Constitution written in 1787 accepted that slavery would continue and that black men and women would not enjoy unalienable rights.

Over the course of two and a third centuries, a civil war has been fought, slavery abolished, then Jim Crow laws enacted, later overturned by landmark court rulings and civil rights and voting rights laws. Still, America remains marked by the faults of its founders.

Schools carried the taint through racial segregation and through persistently inadequate facilities, supplies and instruction for minority and poor children. So what can schools now do to rub off some of the taint?

For one thing, educators can ensure that today’s young people have a fuller education in history than their parents and grandparents in the South likely received. That point comes across in New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new book, In the Shadow of the Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

As mayor, Landrieu took the initiative by having four statues – three Confederate memorials and one commemorating a white-supremacists’ revolt – removed from public spaces in his city. The book, part memoir, part political discourse, gives his rationale for removing the statues as well as his account of serving in the legislature along with former KKK wizard David Duke and of the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that exposed acute urban poverty.

“I had, of course, studied the Civil War in school, or so I thought,’’ says Landrieu. “The real problem is I wasn’t taught much at all. My middle and high school classes consisted of lessons about the various battles of the war…There was little to nothing on the morality of slavery…Barely a passing mention on Reconstruction.”

My own recollection coincides with Landrieu’s. I was in high school in Baton Rouge 15 years before he was in high school in New Orleans. I remember day after day of Civil War battle lines drawn on the chalkboard, but recall little exploration of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow until college history courses.

The death of Linda Brown in Topeka, KS, earlier this week served as a reminder of another historical moment that ought to be well-taught. As a young schoolgirl, she was the named plaintiff in the case of Brown v. Board that the U.S. Supreme Court used to declare racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

As federal courts enforced the ruling – especially through the busing decision in the famous Charlotte-Mecklenburg case – Southern states led the nation for a while in racially and economically integrated schools. But when courts later released districts from desegregation orders, a resegregation dynamic took hold. That reality is unlikely to be reversed in the near term, but public policymakers can avoid actions to accelerate the trend – and do what it takes to develop more public schools that parents want their children to attend.

While bolstering the teaching of history and avoiding further racial segregation, North Carolina officials have additional important work to do within schools. One is to persist in alleviating the deleterious influence of “unconscious bias’’ through professional development programs for teachers. Research led by Seth Gershenson of American University has shown “clear disparities in the expectations that teachers have for students of different races’’ that can be addressed with no-blame “teacher-facing’’ strategies.

Another challenge, illuminated in the “Teaching-in-color’’ articles featured this week on EdNC, is to recruit more blacks and Latinos into North Carolina’s classrooms – most especially black men as teachers. Both Adam Rhew and James E. Ford, also drawing on research by Gershenson and others, pointed out that having even one black male teacher increased the chances of low-income black students graduating by 39 percent.

Schools have often become contested space as well as exhibits of the nation’s racial divisions. Still, schools can serve as potent instruments for healing divisions, narrowing gaps – and contributing enlightenment to the nation’s long struggle to cope with its “original sin.”

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.