Virginia commission calls for broad changes in Black history lessons

A Virginia commission investigating how Black history is taught in the state’s classrooms is recommending that learning standards change to be more inclusive and offer diverse perspectives.

In its report released Monday, the Virginia African American History Education Commission advised that social studies standards should be revised to ensure that Black history and views on major historical events are adequately incorporated into lessons on the nation’s past.

The commission wants to make sure that African American history is not treated separately and is included as part of overall lessons on American history.

“The commission’s recommendations will ensure that Virginia’s history standards reflect the complexity of our past, help students understand how present-day challenges are connected to this history, and provide teachers with more resources to engage in anti-racist work,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a news release.

“The more our students know, the more our students can do to help build a better future.”

One of the most significant recommendations from the 34-member commission would add African American history as a graduation requirement for Virginia students.

For teachers, recommendations include certification in African American history and enrollment in cultural competency courses.

“Even though Virginia led the nation in developing high-quality content standards more than 25 years ago, the standards were tainted with a master narrative that marginalized or erased the presence of non-Europeans from the American landscape,” the commission said in its report.

“These historical silences skew our perspective of the past, erasing people of color, and supplanting them with false narratives that ignore the diverse cultural underpinnings in American society.”

The commission proposed hundreds of edits to Virginia’s standards of learning, recommending a closer look at topics such as lynching, Juneteenth, voting laws that disenfranchised African Americans and the role of slavery in the Civil War.

For example, Virginia’s current curriculum states the American Civil War began as a result of “cultural, economic and constitutional differences between the North and the South.”

The commission called that language “passive” and “evasive,” and recommended a more explicit focus on slavery as being pivotal to the ultimate cause of the war.

“An effort to change the way citizens of Virginia are educated about history, with a special emphasis on incorporating African American history into the larger narrative, has never been more important,” said the commission in its report.

“The commission shares a strong sense of urgency for policymakers to act and implement the recommendations necessary to achieve a vision for a more just and inclusive Virginia.”

Most of the recommendations are meant to guide a revision of Virginia’s learning standards in 2022, though some will likely be considered as legislation when the General Assembly meets in January.

The Virginia African American History Education Commission was formed in 2019 through an executive order from Northam. It met several times over the last year and held listening sessions with the public.

Northam recently announced the launch of an African American history elective in 16 Virginia school divisions, including Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, which focuses on Black history spanning from precolonial Africa to the modern day.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2020 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up