Teaching African American History in Virginia

Frederick Douglass

By James C. Sherlock

I fully support integrating African American history into the broad sweep of history taught in the nation’s primary and secondary schools.  

On September 17, there will be a Virginia Board of Education meeting with an agenda item titled “Report from the Governor’s African American History Education Commission, August 2020”  (the Report). 

I will offer here a positive, optimistic approach.

But first, the fiercely negative approach to the teaching of African American history offered by the Governor’s Commission.

ministers of despair

I just finished reading the Report that will be considered on September 17. I urge you to read it. See postscript for how to comment for the record to the VBOE  by 5 PM on Wednesday, September 16.

It represents perhaps the most profoundly pessimistic recounting possible both of America itself and of the way to incorporate African American history into the curricula into Virginia schools. 

The Report is critical race theory brought to life. It represents the most thoroughly negative view of America’s history and pessimism about its future as a nation that I have ever encountered in a government document anywhere.

Many universities have had success at radicalization. This recommends an earlier start.  Kindergarten.

If I were a Cuban American who escaped Castro, a Jewish American who escaped Hitler or Stalin, or an African immigrant who recently arrived from Sudan, or a recent arrival from Venezuela, I would simply be mystified.

If I were an active teacher, I would refuse. 

Teachers work every day to impart knowledge that leaves students looking forward to not only to their next day of school but to the lives they have in front of them.  

The report uses the term white 75 times. Once is for someone’s last name. Every other time it is used as a pejorative, often in reference to white teachers who the Report suggests need initial and ongoing re-orientation to continue in their jobs.  

“Ms. Johnson identified the importance of in-depth professional development, especially considering that most teachers are white women. Mr. Hairston agreed and added that students also should be encouraged to read and use primary sources.”  

“Ms. Jennings stressed equity as a major component of helping white teachers gain the capacity to properly teach African American history and engage with all their students. Mr. Girvan added that white teachers may find the content of African American history uncomfortable and so may go past it quickly or explain it poorly.”

And that was from the “Educator Panel,” not public comment.   

The inescapable takeaway is that white teachers are not to be trusted without re-programming.  Even so, students cannot rely on white teachers to tell them the truth. Students must consult “primary sources,” identified in the Report’s Appendix F as the works of America’s critical race theory gurus.


An Optimistic Alternative

I offer a profoundly different alternative, a way to teach that will bring optimism to students and teachers while still bringing forth the facts of slavery and Jim Crow.

My recommendation is to offer such teaching in context of the lives of African Americans who overcame those adversities to succeed. Tell optimistic stories of success while ensuring that students learn the daunting, and in the case of slavery, inhumane conditions they overcame.  

This approach will impart lessons of the past, positive and negative, while leaving black children proud of their heritage and white children proud that America produced such men and women and determined to do better in their own lives.


Start with the life and times of Martin Luther King.

The life of Thurgood Marshall  July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993. He was without question the greatest African American lawyer and jurist in American history.

The life of the former slave Clara Brown (c. 1800–1885) who spent time working the fields in Virginia. She married another enslaved person when she was eighteen and together they had four children. In 1835, Brown’s family was broken apart when they were all sold to different slave owners. At the age of 56, she was granted her freedom. She went west on a wagon train and ultimately became a community leader, philanthropist and aided settlement of former slaves during the time of Colorado’s Gold Rush. She was known as the ‘Angel of the Rockies’ and made her mark as Colorado’s first black settler and a prosperous entrepreneur.

The history of Black owned companies like McKissack & McKissack, a 114-year old architectural and engineering that was founded in 1905 in Nashville, Tenn., by Moses McKissack. It was the first African-American-owned architectural firm in the United States and is the oldest African American-owned architecture and engineering firm in the country. It seemingly built half of Nashville and is now headquartered in New York City. As of 2013, the family-owned successor companies were reported to have more than 150 professional staff members and over $15 billion in projects. Cheryl McKissack Daniel is the current President & CEO.

The lives of Black economists including the prominent scholars Walter Williams of George Mason University and Thomas Sowell of UCLA and the Hoover Institution. 

Williams, born March 31, 1936, grew up in a single-parent household in a poor section of Philadelphia. He was raised by his mother, who was a high school dropout. The family spent time on welfare, and eventually moved into the Richard Allen public housing project.  

Sowell, born June 30, 1930 and whose father died before he was born, was the son of a maid. His Up From the Projects – An Autobiography is an inspiration to anyone fortunate enough to read it. 

The lives of these two men will teach American children more of the struggles of growing up poor and black in post-WW II projects that anything in the Report.

The life of the Black business leader Robert L. Johnson, co-founder of BET, the first African American billionaire. He  was born in 1946 in Hickory, Mississippi, the ninth out of ten children to Edna and Archie Johnson. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a farmer. He earned a masters degree from Princeton. BET was the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991.

The lives of STEM heroines like Ursula Burns of Xerox and the great Katherine Johnson. 

In 2014, Forbes rated Ms. Burns, then CEO of XEROX, the 22nd most powerful woman in the world. She was a leader of the STEM program of the White House from 2009 to 2016, and head of the President’s Export Council from 2015 until 2016.  Burns was raised by a single mother in the Baruch Houses, a New York city housing project. Both of her parents were Panamanian immigrants. She attended Cathedral High School, a Catholic all-girls school on East 56th Street in New York. She has a Master of Science in mechanical engineering from Columbia.

The great NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, W.V. Because Greenbrier County did not offer African-American schooling past the 8th grade, her parents sent her to high school in Institute, W.V.  After graduating from high school at 14, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State, a historically black college. As a student, she took every math course offered by the college. Multiple professors mentored her, including the chemist and mathematician She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in mathematics and French, at age 18.  She and her family lived in Newport News from 1953.  Her calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. See the acclaimed movie Hidden Figures for both her struggles and her successes.

The life of Richmond’s black businesswoman and teacher Maggie Walker (July 1864-Dec. 1934). Walker was the first African-American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States. Her mother was a former slave and her father was a butler.

The life and times of James Derham (1762—1802), born into slavery in Philadelphia, was the first African American to practice medicine in America. He was owned by three doctors in the Philadelphia area. In one of the households he learned to read and write. In 1788 he was sold to a prominent surgeon in New Orleans, and the surgeon encouraged Derham to learn medicine. He showed great aptitude and learned surgery. He gained his freedom and was permitted to practice among the freemen and slaves of New Orleans. He was a successful physician and, necessary in New Orleans, fluent in French, English, and Spanish. He would have been a godsend to African-Americans who would not have been allowed to visit a white doctor. Though James Derham’s skills were well-known and his practice flourished, New Orleans passed regulations in 1801 that prevented him from practicing medicine since he had no formal medical degree.

The life and times of James McCune Smith (1813-1865). Smith was an American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author in New York City. He was the first African American to hold a medical degree and graduated at the top in his class at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. After his return to the United States, he became the first African American to run a pharmacy in this nation. He has been most well known for his leadership as an abolitionist: a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with Frederick Douglass he helped start the National Council of Colored People in 1853, the first permanent national organization for blacks. Douglass called Smith “the single most important influence on his life.”

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was an escaped slave. Harvard Professor of English and Civil War historian John Stauffer tells this story, reflecting on the friendship between the Douglass and President Lincoln.

When Frederick Douglass came to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural reception in 1865, policemen blocked his way — until the President came to welcome him.

“Here comes my friend Douglass,” Lincoln said, taking Douglass by the hand.”There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

Douglas published “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” in Boston in 1845. His last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was first published in 1881 and revised in 1892, three years before his death.  The book covers events both during and after the Civil War. He was also a believer in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, as well as in the liberal values of the U.S. Constitution. Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, be they white, black, female, Native American, or Chinese immigrants. 

Surely there are those among us can find enough history in the lives of those great Black Americans to serve as the canvas upon which African American history is painted for Virginia’s primary and secondary students.  

If they cannot, we need better historians.  

Based on the Report that parroted much of current theory of education in the humanities and social sciences, we also need better education schools.

A Higher Authority

I will finish with excerpts from a speech in which Frederick Douglass challenged the opinions of most observers, including most African Americans, by advocating the acceptance of Chinese immigration.  

I quote from that speech because Douglass could have been speaking of the people that wrote the Report.

“It is thought by many, and said by some, that this Republic has already seen its best days; that the historian may now write the story of its decline and fall.

Two classes of men are just now especially afflicted with such forebodings. The first are those who are croakers by nature—the men who have a taste for funerals, and especially National funerals. They never see the bright side of anything and probably never will. . .

But the American people … have a right to be impatient and indignant at those among ourselves who turn the most hopeful portents into omens of disaster, and make themselves the ministers of despair when they should be those of hope, and help cheer on the country in the new and grand career of justice upon which it has now so nobly and bravely entered. Of errors and defects we certainly have not less than our full share, enough to keep the reformer awake, the statesman busy, and the country in a pretty lively state of agitation for some time to come. Perfection is an object to be aimed at by all, but it is not an attribute of any form of Government. Neutrality is the law for all. 

Something different, something better, or something worse may come, but so far as respects our present system and form of Government, and the altitude we occupy, we need not shrink from comparison with any nation of our times…”

Frederick Douglass, Boston, 1869


I urge you to make inputs to the Board of Education meeting that will discuss the Report. Send your input to  BOE@doe.virginia.gov. Without it there is every chance they will take the Report as the sum of received wisdom on the subject.  Without contrasting inputs, that will seem the path of least resistance. Written public comment received by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, September 16 will be considered by the Board and posted on the Board’s web page.