Faith leaders renew push for ‘accurate’ Black history education in Florida

People chat slogans during the “Teach No Lies” march to the School Board of Miami-Dade County to protest Florida’s new standards for teaching Black history, which have come under intense criticism for what they say about slavery, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Miami. — AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Faith leaders in Florida and their supporters are redoubling efforts to ensure Black history is taught widely and truthfully in reaction to the state’s rejection of an Advanced Placement course on African American studies and changes to state academic standards about public school history instruction about slavery. 

Starting on Feb. 29, leaders of Faith in Florida, who last year created an online toolkit for churches wanting to teach Black history, will meet in Orlando for a training session with Florida educators and others to share how they have used it.

In the same week, Black Baptist clergy, scholars and curriculum publishers organized by the Florida General Baptist Convention met at a church in Tallahassee for a symposium called “Teaching Our Own History.” The participants will review a curriculum outline they hope will be used in schools and churches across the state.

“Our march is not for a moment but it’s for a movement,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., pastor of Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and host of the two-day symposium.

The developments come after state social studies authorities suggested that lessons about slavery in America could include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Holmes said in an interview that Baptist leaders plan to present their model for teaching African and African American history as an alternative to the “hurtful” state curriculum and will share details of it with state government officials at the conclusion of the symposium.

“We will present to the governor of Florida, the Commissioner of Education and the Board of Education a factual, accurate and correct teaching of African American history in our public schools,” Holmes said in a statement. “An enslaved people didn’t derive any benefits from slavery; slavery was brutal, treacherous, sinful and unscrupulous.”

The Rev. Carl Johnson, president of the Florida General Baptist Convention, said the new curriculum guide will be available statewide starting in 2025 and he hopes other Baptist state conventions affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, USA, will follow its model.

“Our primary goal is to dispel any myth that’s not accurate about our history,” he said in an interview. “We’re crafting information to correct those misnomers.”

Leaders of the “Teaching Our Own History” task force said more than 50 churches and organizations have committed to using the curriculum guide at “freedom schools” organized to teach Black history, following a model created during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s that provided academic enrichment and trained students about social change.

Faith in Florida, a consortium of Florida leaders, is working to advance Black history, particularly through churches. In May of 2023, the multiracial and multifaith coalition of congregations launched an online toolkit to encourage Florida churches to teach Black history.

As of October, leaders of more than 300 congregations — mostly pastors of Black churches — from 22 states had pledged to join in the cause. That number has grown to more than 400 congregations in Florida and 28 other states and includes leaders from predominantly white and Muslim communities.

“People across the state and across the country want to know: How do we do more? How do we escalate this teaching?” said the Rev. Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida.

“What’s so important for us, and this convening, is making sure that we continue to teach history in its richness, in its fullness, teach it in ways that even educators wouldn’t be able to teach, because we don’t have a restriction in the church,” she said.

Thomas said Holmes and his team have her organization’s support. The Florida General Baptist Convention is a partner of Faith in Florida, and some of the churches involved in the Tallahassee symposium are active members of her organization.

“We definitely do not look at it as a competitive thing, but we see how it’s going to take all of us to work together as one to make sure that Black history is taught in its fullness, in a way that it’s not diluted,” she said.

Ahead of the meetings, Thomas said she already noticed the difference the church-based focus on Black history has made in some of Florida’s congregations.

“We have seen across the state how teaching Black history has become its own identity,” she said, “and now some of our Black history classes are larger than our Sunday school classes.”

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the Read More

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