Commentary

Robert Walsh: We must improve teaching of African American history

This commentary is by Robert Walsh, who taught African American history at South Burlington High School from 1980 to 1995 and later was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Vermont. He co-authored the book “The Other America: The African American Experience” and authored the book “Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont.” He served in the Vermont House of Representatives  from 1983 to 1989 and in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1955 to 1976.

“We don’t have racism in Vermont.” That’s the most common response I get after speaking to a group about racism. Until Vermont is able to convince its citizens that racism is real and present, we will continue to be an unwelcoming place for people who are not white to live and work. 

Vermont has made a conscious effort to address the problem. We have passed legislation, created positions within the government, and conducted educational information campaigns. Today a commission, appointed by the Legislature, is studying diversity, equity and inclusion in our society. 

Despite these efforts, we have citizens leaving the state, leaving their professions, or suing in court because of racial harassment directed at them.The most recent examples are those of state Rep. Kiah Morris, Rutland NAACP chapter President Tabitha Moore, Rutland Board of Alderman member Lisa Ryan, and Washington County resident Celine Davis. 

I believe our efforts have failed because we haven’t actually addressed the problem. Programs supporting diversity, equity and inclusion are important. They increase public acceptance and improve opportunity. They do not focus on racism or provide an understanding of its root causes. 

David Wellman’s “Portraits of White Racism” defines racism as “ a system of advantage based on race.” Beverly Tatum’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” defines racism as “prejudice plus power.” If racism is “a system of advantage based on race” or a combination of “prejudice and power,” two questions come to mind:

  • How did racism take hold in a country founded on the principle that all men are created equal? 
  • How do we rectify the problem? 

In “Before the Mayflower,” Lerone Bennett traces the history of African Americans from the early 1600s. Initially, most of the Africans who arrived in the American colonies were indentured servants; some were free. That changed as the worldwide demand for sugar and tobacco increased. 

To meet the demand, planters required a large labor force. Neither poor whites nor Indigenous Indians proved to be satisfactory sources of labor. African slaves met that need and became a cornerstone of the economic system. They were brought to America against their will, bought and sold as property, and denied legal rights. Racism (power plus prejudice) had found a home in the American colonies. 

The greatest fear of the planters was a slave revolt. As a preventive measure, laws were passed making it illegal for slaves to congregate in groups of more than five. It was illegal to teach a slave to read. Immediately after the Civil War, Southern states passed black codes to suppress former slaves’ economic opportunities. South Carolina “forbade freedman (sic) to follow any occupation except farming and menial service.” 

After Reconstruction, Southern states passed Jim Crow segregation laws. All public facilities, including transportation systems, were segregated. Private businesses — including restaurants, hotels, theaters, athletic teams and others — were segregated. Interacial marriage was illegal. Lynchings were public events. 

African Americans’ freedom to vote was severely restricted until President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Some Jim Crow laws, specifically laws prohibiting interracial marriage, continued well into the 1970s. The legacy of slavery, black codes and Jim Crow laws continues to limit economic, political and educational opportunities of African Americans today. 

White supremacy is a product of the slave system and has spread through the country like the Covid plague we are currently experiencing. Unfortunately there is no vaccine to eradicate it. Equally unfortunate, we continue to unwittingly promote white supremacy. 

Our schools teach about American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. Students learn about Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Jonas Salk. What we fail to teach are the achievements of George Morgan, Benjamin Bannecker and Charles Drew, African Americans with equally impressive achievements in similar fields of medicine and science. To rectify the problem will require a long-term commitment to education and cultural change. 

In an article for VTDigger, Fletcher Elementary School Principal Chris Dodge discussed the ineffectiveness of Black History Month as a means of addressing racism. He concluded, “I will teach differently next time and will discuss racism regularly, not just in February. And, I will start with a modern-day context and work my way back in time to help my students understand how we got to where we are.” 

Mr. Dodge is an example of a teacher being expected to teach a subject for which he has had little preparation. That he did it to the to the best of his ability and is already making plans to improve in the future is a credit to him 

I believe we need to insert African American history into all aspects of our secondary school curriculum. It can be accomplished immediately with minimum cost. What is required is teachers with some knowledge and understanding of African American history. 

The House Education Committee has the opportunity to consider H.79, a bill requiring teachers to complete a postsecondary course in African American history as a condition of teacher licensing. This could be one step in the effort to change attitudes about race and eradicate racism in Vermont.


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