Students work to better Black history and slavery education in TN

(Photo: Getty Images)

When Mariah Toennies was temporarily on crutches and sitting out of gym class, she said she was able to speak with her teacher at Nolensville High School a little more than usual. During one conversation her teacher learned Toennies was adopted by a white family, and that her birth father was black. Toennies said her teacher then asked if that meant she was “from the ghetto.”

Toennies said her adoptive parents worked hard to educate her about Black history and her ancestral heritage. Before enrolling in public school she was homeschooled, where she learned about Civil Rights leaders like the late John Lewis, who participated in sit-ins at diners in Nashville. But in public school, she said many of her peers didn’t even know who Rep. Lewis was. Toennies said this lack of education about Black history, the Civil Rights era and slavery may be part of the reason her teacher stereotyped her.

“I felt like the racism experienced by teens in our community is because of a lack of awareness and a level of ignorance and not knowing the history,” Toennies said.

History education, like all subjects, is regulated by state standards. State law requires students to take at least one course on Tennessee history, and beginning in the ninth grade, some of the standards are dedicated to African American history.

The African American history course description states that students will learn about the “contributions of African Americans from the early 1600s through the contemporary United States,” including before, during and after the Civil War. Lessons on the Jim Crow era and the Harlem Renaissance are also listed. However, the state also writes that “the standards are what students should know… the standards do not dictate how a teacher should teach them.”

That individual teachers must determine how to communicate sensitive subjects is part of the problem, according to Bill Carey, a Tennessee historian, writer and curriculum creator. Carey created Tennessee History for Kids in 2004, a nonprofit that provides print and digital educational material for Tennessee students. The organization sells history booklets for $2 and offers webinars.

Online survey on black history. (Sourc: Abby Lee Hood)
Online survey on black history. (Sourc: Abby Lee Hood)

While researching the history of slavery in the state for his book “Runaways, Coffles and Fancy Girls: A History of Slavery in Tennessee,” Carey discovered newspaper articles about slave revolts and classifieds in 1791 alerting readers to runaway slaves. Because these discoveries are recent, they aren’t yet reflected in many Tennessee classrooms. Carey said that because each school system interprets curriculum differently, what is being taught in one county might not be the same in another.

“As someone who makes his living doing this, I don’t know what’s being taught. Some schools use what I do and students are informed,” Carey said. “It varies wildly.”

Carey also said teachers aren’t given enough training or instruction about teaching the history of slavery, the Civil War and African American history, but still shoulder the blame when they make mistakes.

In February, a student teacher at Waverly Belmont was fired after giving a controversial slavery assignment to a fourth grade class. In November 2019, another Metro Public Schools teacher was placed on leave after an assignment about the “n-word.” A recent submission to Dearest WCS—which  has shared 310 anonymous accounts of racism and prejudice in Williamson County schools since July 1—said a class assignment asked students to imagine what their expectations of slaves would be if their families had owned them. 

“Teachers are afraid because no matter what they do someone is going to get in trouble,” Carey said. “Our hearts should all go out to the teachers. The truth of the matter is they’re kind of thrown out there and they’re supposed to teach this. School systems owe it to teachers to help them out on the subject.”

Inadequacies in Black history education span multiple generations and ethnicities in Tennessee. In an anonymous online survey of 343 current and previous Tennessee students, 84% said they did not feel their education about slavery and Black history was adequate, and 72% said their education on those subjects was not anti-racist despite a majority of respondents identifying as white.

Of those surveyed, 71% attended public schools. When asked how many had BIPOC or Black teachers, 23% reported they had never had a teacher of color, and 17% reported they had only one.

“It felt like Black people only existed during slavery and the Civil Rights era. And Native Americans stopped existing after the Trail of Tears,” one respondent wrote when asked what they would change about their education.

“None of our assignments reflect a deeper understanding of the plight of BIPOC in our country,” another wrote.

The lack of proper racial history education has lasting negative effects on people after they leave school, according to Gicola Lane, a community organizer who advocated for Nashville’s police community oversight board. Lane, whose uncle was shot and killed by Metro police, said the school-to-prison pipeline is propped up by inaccurate or inadequate education. Lane said she knows several people who began to get in trouble in high school and are still incarcerated.

Gicola Lane (Photo: Facebook)
Gicola Lane (Photo: Facebook)

“We go into the schools and deal with kids who are formerly or currently incarcerated in the juvenile system, but also whose parents are incarcerated,” Lane said of her work with Free Hearts, a nonprofit that works to reunite incarcerated or deported family members. “I see it with my own two eyes.”

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, children who do not participate in high-quality early education have higher rates of juvenile delinquency and arrests. The CDF found that in 2005, of the estimated 1,434 youth in residential placement in Tennessee, 49% were Black, and said that children of color are disproportionately represented in both the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Like Toennies, Lane said that during her public school education she did not learn much about her own ancestral heritage and found it damaging. In public school, textbooks were often falling apart or students had to share. Lane said it wasn’t until she attended a historically black university (HBCU)  that she began to be more interested in history class.

“Oftentimes, as black people, we don’t know our roots,” Lane said. “I didn’t see myself in the history books I was provided in school. But once I went to an HBCU I started finding my people within history. That made me way more interested.”

In at least some schools, educators are working to improve their knowledge and learn how to better teach students. Toennies said she spoke with her principal at Nolensville High School and was pleased to learn he had been educating himself on Black history.

“I actually went to my school with other students of color and we had a sit-down conversation with my principal, Bill Harlan, on how we can unify our school and one of the main topics was the education piece of it,” Toennies said. “We have the full support of our community and it was a beneficial conversation.”

Other educators are going in completely different directions, like Sonia Fernandez Le Blanc, who helped found the Nashville Sudbury School. The Sudbury method is an education model that puts students in control of their learning, using direct democracy and self-selected learning instead of state standards.

  Teachers are afraid because no matter what they do, someone is going to get in trouble. School systems owe it to teachers to help them out on the subject.   – Bill Carey, historian

Fernandez Le Blanc said she had an entirely different experience in school after moving from a private Tennessee school to a school in the Domincan Republic, where her father is from. Before opening the Nashville Sudbury School—which is currently on hiatus—she taught in the public education system. She experienced the same kind of fear Carey said teachers face daily.

“I closed the door and I didn’t teach the curriculum,” Fernandez Le Blanc said. “A lot of people live in fear, and teachers live in fear. They make no money.”

Now that the Sudbury school is closed due to financial and pandemic concerns, Weiser said she is educating her two children at home. Weiser said they are most interested in science and make time to read as a family together every night. The family is currently reading “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.” Weiser said even difficult topics are not too much for her children, who are 7 and 9 years old.

“Stop sugarcoating it. They’re not fragile,” Fernandez Le Blanc said. “I am giving my children this freedom so they can pass it down and we can potentially in 250 years be in a different place, and it be for the better.”

Like Wesier, students like Toennies—who supports Black Lives Matter and has participated in protests—are organizing to improve their classrooms and educational experiences. Toennies is encouraged by the progress she’s seen and said she wants to make it clear not everything about public school in Tennessee is negative.

“I’m proud of Nolensville as a community,” Toennies said. “I don’t want anyone to think that I hate the public school system. I just want there to be a deeper education on the racial history of America and how we can be sensitive, and aware of the things that we say, so that we don’t contribute to systemic racism.”