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‘Black history is American history’: Challenging history education to reach beyond the classroom

Educators explore how expanding Black history in Virginia schools will help end systemic racism

ROANOKE, Va. – “Black history is American history.”

It’s the bold statement Eboni Harrington, a seventh-grade math teacher at Lucy Addison Middle School in Roanoke, lives by.

“How can students from my background, my community and my culture know where they’re going if they don’t know where they come from?” asks Harrington.

Harrington doesn’t just teach in Roanoke; she grew up here, graduating from Roanoke County’s Northside High School.

It’s become her passion to make her community better and it starts in the classroom.

After teaching the required curriculum in her two-hour core enrichment class, Harrington uses the extra time for guest speakers to teach confidence, leadership and also both regional and national Black history.

“If we’re teaching history why not teach the full history. Because if I only teach one side of the history, how do my students know their background?” said Harrington.

She’s not the only one who is realizing how one-sided history is in Virginia education.

Black smoke billows from fires during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921,  in the Greenwood District, Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 1921. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Black smoke billows from fires during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in the Greenwood District, Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 1921. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

“The Tulsa Riots, I didn’t know what those were a year ago, why was I not taught that? Understanding what the Confederate flag really means for the African American people, how the KKK destroyed any kind of heritage that people might have thought it represented,” said Crystal DeLong.

Delong is a social studies teacher and department head at Liberty High School in Bedford. She won Virginia Teacher of the Year for this region in 2017 and is now a member of the Virginia African American History Education Commission.

The commission, created last year, consists of educators from across Virginia who are researching to make sure Black voices in the commonwealth’s history don’t go unheard in education.

“African Americans are a huge part of Virginia’s history. We’re not talking about somebody who makes up 1% of Virginia’s population. We are talking about the African Americans that made up 40% of Virginia’s population by the 1700s,” said DeLong.

Virginia education standards cover slavery and the civil rights movement, but that wasn’t the only time African Americans existed in U.S. history.

“We tend to teach it from one perspective instead of realizing that there are multiple people, groups who were experiencing this. So it’s really just broadening education instead of just looking at it through more a white European, Western lens,” DeLong said.

Right now it’s up to teachers who are willing to go beyond textbooks like Harrington does. Her students notice the extra effort and some really do appreciate it.

One student, Kieley Graham, said she wants everyone to learn Black history, but worries if it’s not done a certain way it won’t have the same impact it’s had on her.

“Say they don’t have Ms. Harrington. They’re not going to understand it like we learned it so I think it’s a little different for them, they’re not getting to do the fun activity to learn it; so for them they have to read out of a textbook,” Graham said.

Even as young as these students are, they recognize the value in more Black history and what it means for their future.

“What we (African Americans) went through back then with like Black history and stuff, we’ve been through a lot and I think that people should know of how to make this community better than what it is,” said one of Graham’s classmates, Saniya Gray.

For Harrington, powerful realizations from her students are a reminder of what education is all about.

“I think the generations that we are building and molding now, that are in the school system, are the future. So if we have those conversations now in the school system, there’s no way we can’t get to some type of solution as each other as people,” said Harrington.

DeLong tells 10 News there is a committee dedicated to creating and giving teachers an extensive resource to teaching any added Black history material so they don’t have to figure it out on their own.

But nothing is set in stone. The Virginia African American History Education Commission is still meeting via Zoom. The goal is to present a report to the Virginia Board of Education and Gov. Ralph Northam in the fall.


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