My great grandfather, William Henry, was both pushed and pulled out of Virginia in the 1830s. He was pushed out by new laws severely limiting the freedom of “free” Blacks in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. Pulling him out were the opportunities around the new Erie Canal near Pittsburgh. But his family didn’t stay there long – slave raiders prowled the nearby Ohio River, and were rewarded whether they returned a runaway enslaved person or a free individual like my great grandfather. And so for safety, the family moved to central Ohio, which was also enjoying an economic boom due to the Erie Canal.
From the start of his new life in Ohio, he was confronted with violent resistance to the inclusion of Black children in public education. In 1859, he and two other African Americans who had been supporting “colored education” convinced the local school board to build a school for colored students. The same day it was completed, it was destroyed overnight by Whites. Following that incident, one of William’s friends armed himself and oversaw the completion of a rebuilt school.
When I started in that same local public school system about a hundred years later, I faced more insidious methods of suppressing Black education. I was the only Black student in my downtown elementary school. Most Blacks were concentrated in housing on the East side of town and went to school there. The data show us very little has changed in terms of school integration since the late 1970s.
In junior and senior high school there were a few more Black students. But after twelve years of public education, I had never had a Black teacher. Over that time the textbooks we used briefly mentioned slavery and there might have been a reference to Booker T. Washington or George Washington Carver. I don’t recall any lessons about Blacks in Ohio’s history or the fact that the underground railroad had a safe house near my hometown. There were no conversations in class about what was happening in the emerging civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even though I made the junior honor society, I was tracked for business (non-college courses) until my mother intervened. Most of all, no one asked me if I felt “uncomfortable” about the kind of education I received. The negative stereotypes, the daily microaggressions, and the invisibility of Black achievement were the norm, not a deviation from it.
When I entered a nearby private college in the mid-sixties, I was the only Black man – student or faculty – on campus (there were two brave Black women in my class). Having had no exposure to African history or culture in school – and with Tarzan movies dominating depictions of Africa in the popular media – I was excited to take a course on recent African history. Unfortunately, when I attended my first African history class, I found it was taught by a professor who believed that colonialism had ultimately benefited Africa, and Africans. That perspective was contradicted nightly on the news, as new African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyetta of Kenya, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania told a different story of their nations’ struggles against the brutalities of colonialism. This contradiction inspired me to do my own research on African history and I joined a group of students starting an experimental college on campus. We offered courses that diverged or were missing from the standard curriculum; students took them voluntarily, for no credit. By the time I graduated, there were enough students of color to form a Black Student Union and to demand visibility in the curriculum as well as the classroom. In short, the emergence of Black Studies as a discipline was a demand for inclusion, rather than exclusion.
On arriving in graduate school, I was anxious to attend my first class with a Black professor, the distinguished historian, John Hope Franklin. Franklin was one of a handful of Black historians that included Benjamin Quarles, Carter Woodson, George Washington Williams, Dorothy Porter, W. E. B. DuBois, and others who began to fill in the blank pages in the national narrative. We began to learn that Black men fought in all of America’s wars, that Black women were influential in the abolitionist movement, and that the American dream, American creed, and American exceptionalism all needed critical examination.
Not surprisingly, this revised, more inclusive version of America’s common past is under attack. The backlash has been going on for some time at the state and local levels and in universities. At the national level, the Reagan administration helped lead the charge away from “equality” in higher education and toward “excellence” – implying that we can’t have both, and that the limited inclusion that had been won by that point had decreased, rather than increased, excellence. In national education commissions and at the National Endowment for the Humanities, conservative scholars and politicians called for a return to the classics and attacked ethnic studies and women’s studies. At the Supreme Court, the Bakke decision and those that followed began to erode the concept of affirmative action. This decision shifted the framing and justification of affirmative action from remedying historic injustices through race-conscious admissions to producing “diversity” for the benefit of all students. The shift effectively refocused the purpose of such programs from equalizing opportunities for Black students in the face of discrimination to providing a benefit – diversity – to existing students, with the perverse practical result that, in order for Black students to attend previously all White schools, their presence had to benefit White students. The rationale for the Brown decision had been turned on its head.
This long-simmering backlash has culminated most recently in attempts to return American children to the exclusive, racially hostile classrooms of the pre-civil rights movement era—the era in which I began my education. Republican legislators in 37 states, including Ohio, have introduced dozens of bills limiting the teaching of issues related to race or racism. Restrictions have already been implemented in 14 states, either signed into law or enacted through administrative action. The governor of William Henry’s home state of Virginia, for example, has issued an executive order against teaching critical race theory in order to protect “freedom of thought.” We are told that teaching such concepts—which in reality are only taught in law schools and graduate schools—makes children uncomfortable, and that such discomfort can be avoided by simply silencing discussions of race altogether. Once again, the American dream, American creed, and American exceptionalism must be served up as fact, not theory. Is it any wonder that Black colleges, where it is still possible to receive education rather than propaganda, are being threatened?
It is in this context that America marks nearly a century of contested history with the celebration of Black History Month. Carter Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926 to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Now, as state legislatures, governors, and national figures alike seek to block the teaching of any aspect of history that might cause “racial discomfort,” the future of this celebration seems in doubt. Even books about the heroism of Rosa Parks have been banned in some schools. Since it is possible that we may see the end of Black History Month because of the pain it might inflict on Whites, a quote from Douglass seems appropriate: Douglass concluded, “I deny that the black man’s degradation is essential to the white man’s elevation.” To believe otherwise, was to “pay a sorry compliment to the white race.” As in the 19th century when my great grandfather fought for education in the face of violence, modern attempts to expand access to education – and to broaden the lens of history to include all parts of the American story – have been met with resistance and fear. The fear that such expansion will lead, inevitably, to degradation is not only misplaced. It is an insult to the intelligence of all Americans, a “sorry compliment” to the country’s capacity to embrace its full potential.