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.
To offer a more nuanced view of Black Studies’ rise and fall, I’ll offer two examples. At Charlottesville’s Lane High School, in the late 1960s, Black students protested against the inequitable treatment they faced on a regular basis. Initially, in response to student demands, Lane High School’s administration decided to purchase a video lecture course, “Americans from Africa,”created by Dr. Edgar Toppin. The course included videos, a teacher guide, and supplemental reading materials. White history teachers were responsible for incorporating Toppin’s material into the U.S. History curriculum for all students. At best, they were indifferent to the task; at worst, they were antagonistic. Black students, with the guidance and support of Armstead Robinson from the nearby Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, protested for reform in the curriculum. Lane High School’s administration responded by creating a Black Studies elective course. However, the continued lack of administrative support, ongoing teacher turnover, and Lane High School’s closure, ultimately led to the course’s downfall. Not all courses met the same fate as the one at Lane, though.
James E. Wright taught Black Studies courses at Eau Clair High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Wright, who attended South Carolina State College, started working at Eau Claire in August 1971. In his courses on the Black experience, “Wright used videos, filmstrips, and music to bring African American history to life for his students,” observes Derrick Alridge. “Wright’s passion for teaching and his dedication to liberating his students with the knowledge of Black history impacted generations of students in Columbia and throughout South Carolina.” Wright’s courses on the Black experience suggest a more dynamic and engaging approach than what is described by Zimmerman.
It is important to understand the broader context in which Black Studies courses arose and, in some cases, fell in desegregated schools not just for the historical record but also the future of Black Studies in public schools. In desegregated schools, Black history had been ignored and marginalized, while Black teachers and students contested and navigated a predominantly white and anti-Black space. Black students fought to bring back the Black experience into the curriculum. In response, white administrators and teachers provided a minimal amount of support to curricular reform and even less support to broader reform. If students were bored in these classes, then failure rested not with the students, but with the school districts and schools who had no real intention of helping these courses thrive. Yet, at the same time, there were places where Black Studies courses survived and thrived including in the classrooms of educators like James E. Wright. To imagine a future with more courses like the one taught by Mr. Wright, we need to understand both the courses themselves but also the broader context in which they exist.