Northam wants to have an unscheduled review of state history curriculum

The arch at Fort Monroe in Hampton dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was imprisoned there, which Gov. Ralph Northam has requested be removed. (Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

Gov. Ralph Northam wants to do an off-year review of the state’s K-12 history curriculum, an effort that has become more pressing since he committed the last years of his term to racial reconciliation.

“The governor would like to have an off-cycle review of our history and civic curriculum, what we’re teaching, making sure its accurate,” said Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff. “We recognize it’s an issue and one we’re going to tackle.”

Mercer told the Virginia Asian Advisory Board Thursday that the governor has heard in recent months that there’s a need to take a look at what students are learning in history classes, especially when it comes to African American history. Northam made public reference to it during a community meeting in Danville.

Curriculum standards, and subsequently, Standards of Learning and textbooks are reviewed and adopted every seven years for school subjects. History was last reviewed in 2015, meaning the subject wasn’t due for another review until 2022.

The Mercury recently reported on how textbooks, adopted to reflect curriculum standards, can fall short in providing full, nuanced historical accounts, according to some state officials.

Northam was aware of concerns about the history curriculum before his blackface photo scandal, Mercer said, but he began hearing it more as he’s held roundtable discussions and meets one-on-one with people to discuss racial inequity.

It’s timely work, Mercer said, regardless of the photo. The state is coming up on the 400th anniversary of the first slaves coming to Virginia, which happened in Fort Monroe, a decommissioned army base that the state now owns. 

“Everyone talks about Jamestown, Yorktown. They arrived at Point Comfort, which is modern-day Hampton,” Mercer said, referring to the slaves. “The commonwealth owns a piece of property, that within 100 yards, the first slaves arrived and slaves were freed and, I would offer, not many children going through K-12 know that history.”

Northam recently sent a letter to the Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees asking it to remove an archway dedicated to Jefferson Davis at the entrance of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Park. The board unanimously agreed to take steps to do so.