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Why Frederick Douglass does matter in America's curriculum

Dr. Bill Smith • Sep 2, 2018 at 8:30 AM

During most of my youth, my father was in the Coast Guard, so our family moved fairly often. I attended an all-white public school in North Carolina in the 1950s and racially integrated schools in Connecticut and New Jersey from 1960 through 1964, before resuming my K-12 education in a segregated public high school in South Carolina.

I don’t recall learning anything about Black History in any of those schools, and I graduated from high school with a “Gone with the Wind” view of slavery. If even my northern teachers in fifth- and eighth-grade American History challenged that perspective, I don’t remember it. I vaguely recall them teaching that good white northern folks were conductors on the Underground Railroad and fought to free the slaves during the Civil War, but I don’t think there was any mention of what I learned later: that slavery was inhuman, that African-Americans courageously struggled for their freedom, and that they contributed substantially to the building of America.

As part of my masters’ program in 1974, I took Black History under Grace Jordan McFadden, an extraordinarily talented, kind, and charismatic professor who I believe was the first African-American to serve in the University of South Carolina’s History Department. Her course was transformational for me. At its end, I had a completely altered perspective of not only the experiences and contributions of African-Americans, but of American History itself. I had always been proud of our nation’s heritage, but now I had an additional set of American heroes, with Frederick Douglass as my favorite.

Years later, when I taught fourth- and fifth-grade students, I would begin our unit on slavery by reading to them the opening of Douglass’ autobiography. In the first two pages Douglass recounted his earliest memories of life as a slave. He said that he never learned his date of birth or the identity of his father, although he knew that his father was white and suspected that his master was his father.

Most poignantly, Douglass told how he was separated from his mother as an infant and saw her only four or five times in his life, and then only for brief moments at night. Because his mother had been hired out to a man 12 miles from where Douglass lived, the only way she could visit her son was to walk those 12 miles after working all day in the fields and then return to the fields by sunrise the next day — or face a whipping. As Douglass recalled, she would lie down with him until he fell asleep and would be gone when he awakened. His mother died when he was 7, but Douglass knew nothing of her illness, death or burial until quite some time afterward.

I believe children respond most powerfully to history when they can put themselves in the shoes of young people from the past, and that was certainly true of my students’ reaction to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. After hearing this account one year, the children sat in thoughtful silence for a few moments until one of them asked, “How could this happen in America?” I always anticipated that question and answered with as much sensitivity as possible, talking briefly about slavery throughout world history, emphasizing that it was always wrong, and saying that we were soon going to learn how America abolished it.

I think about that lesson whenever I read conservative commentary claiming America’s schools are indoctrinating children into leftist ideologies or teaching them to hate America. Dennis Prager of the Hoover Institute apparently struggles to write a column on any subject without using the phrase “leftist elementary teachers,” surely the silliest three-word combination any writer has ever employed. Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation is one of many conservatives who have asserted that “we must stop teaching children to hate America.”

Here’s the thing. When I began my unit on slavery, I read verbatim the first two pages of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and said nothing else until students responded. When they did, I carefully reframed the issue to show them that America ultimately addressed the issue of slavery. (What I didn’t say, but could have, is that we were 246 years too late.)

There are two general takeaways here. One, politicians and pundits can be as outraged as they want about children forming beliefs that don’t rigidly conform to conservative ideology, but the fact is, young people are going to draw their own conclusions when given accurate information. They always have and always will.

Two, America’s guarantee of freedom of speech may allow conservatives to promote “alternative facts” and ridiculous, groundless theories whenever reality clashes with their political goals or ideology, but educators don’t enjoy that luxury. I love America and believe it is exceptional among nations, but I cannot imagine how anyone could teach our history without honestly addressing slavery’s brutality and inhumanity.

Since the inclusion of Black History in school curricula in the years following the Civil Rights Movement, many conservatives have characterized that change as political correctness run amok. They are wrong. Including the experiences and contributions of African-Americans in the teaching of American History is not political correctness. It is historical correctness.

Beyond the obvious fact that we should tell our children the truth, there are many compelling reasons for teaching an inclusive interpretation of American History. We know, for example, that our most intractable educational problem has been the racial gap in academic performance. There are many reasons for this disparity, but I have to ask: How can we expect African American children to embrace the study of history and dream of achieving ambitious personal goals if our curriculum suggests that their people have done nothing noteworthy in the last 400 years?

And especially in these times of social and racial division, shouldn’t boys and girls of every ethnicity and race know that America owes its present greatness to the efforts of women and men from a range of backgrounds — and know also that we will need everyone’s future contributions to sustain that greatness?

Yes, the public school American History curriculum changed after the Civil Rights Era. What also changed was that African-Americans in much of the nation went from being people without the full rights of citizenship to possessing at long last essential freedoms that the rest of us always took for granted. These two changes are directly related. It’s no coincidence that a people whose history was denied for centuries were also denied the legal recognition of their full humanity during those many years. Simply stated, challenges to the legitimacy of Black History are challenges to racial equality.

Too many of today’s conservative commentators and politicians are promoting dangerous, unfounded theories for the sole purpose of arousing anger, fear, and resentment in the Republican base. They are a cancer within, Republican leaders, and the clock is ticking. Before it’s too late, you need to take a stand, the kind of courageous stand that men and women of every race and ethnicity have taken in the past when America needed it.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator.

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