A governor-appointed commission begins work on improving black history education in Virginia

By: - October 29, 2019 12:05 am

Gov. Ralph Northam (left) and Christine Harris, director of the Office of Humanities in the Department of Education at the first meeting of the Virginia Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The commission charged with making recommendations to create a more accurate and complete representation of black history in state education guidelines plans to finish its work by the time the state makes changes to the Standards of Learning again.

The 34-member Virginia Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth started about 10 months of work Monday at the University of Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam established the commission via executive order in August, the same day he spoke at an event to mark the arrival of the first slaves at Fort Monroe more than 400 years ago.

Northam said in the order that black history in Virginia is “difficult, complex and often untold.” At the commission’s meeting, he said black history in schools is often “inadequate” and “inaccurate,” a concern that has been echoed by educators.

“The commonwealth has long been known for its rigorous academic standards, including its history and social science standards of learning, first established in 1995,” the order reads. “Virginia’s standards must be inclusive of African American history and provide opportunities for students to engage deeply, drawing connections to its relevance in our contemporary communities.”

The commission isn’t rewriting Standards of Learning or other curriculum guidelines, but will make suggestions for what to change, add or take out. Some changes, like fixing inaccurate information, will be sent to Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, who could approve the change and instruct school systems to observe the amendment immediately.

A report of recommendations should be completed in time for the department and the Board of Education’s regularly scheduled curriculum and standards review.

“I think it’s fair to say after what happened in February in the Commonwealth of Virginia and also the fact that we’ve just commemorated the 400 years of history in our commonwealth at Fort Monroe, that there is a level of awareness regarding race and equity that I certainly have never seen in my lifetime,” Northam said at the meeting, alluding to the photo of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume found on his medical school yearbook earlier this year. (Northam at first admitted he was in the photo, then denied he was either of the people shown.)

Northam said one of the most pressing issues he hopes the commission will address is casting the end of slavery as the end of oppression for black people. The Jim Crow Era, Massive Resistance and mass incarceration have followed, he said

“My perception is that when we talk about black oppression, I think a lot of us need to understand that concept a lot better and this needs to start with the education of our children,” Northam said. “Black oppression is alive and well today, it’s just in a different form.”

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a former teacher and current dean at Norfolk State University, recalled the teaching material she encountered in the classroom.

“I would read it and I would not read anything about slavery,” Newby-Alexander said. “I would read it and read nothing about the contributions of African Americans except in a token manner.”

Native American history, Newby-Alexander recalled, disappeared after history books acknowledged Pocahontas’ death.

The Board of Education has undertaken the process of revamping professional development standards, which will dovetail with another one of the group’s goals — teachers’ professional development.

It is likely teachers will need to shift from teaching to standardized tests to more conceptual and “culturally responsive” teaching, said Christonya Brown, the history curriculum coordinator for the state.

Northam, who has no education background, offered a humble suggestion: Consider thematic instead of chronological teaching and utilize Virginia’s numerous historic sites as a teaching tool.

“Get our students out of the classrooms and … to see and feel our 400 years of history,” he explained to the commission.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.