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Thursday, September 23, 2021

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Virginia Commission on African American History works toward more inclusive, accurate K-12 curriculum

<p>View from Potterfield Bridge.</p>

View from Potterfield Bridge.

Governor Ralph Northam’s Commission on African American History Education completed a review in Sept. 2020 of the Virginia K-12 school curricula and made significant revisions to the history modules, which went into effect in Oct. 2020. 

“The history of African Americans in Virginia, and our nation, is difficult, complex and often untold,” Northam said at the 2019 Commemoration of the First African Landing, which honors the first enslaved Africans that came to the U.S. “We should strive to make sure every Virginia student has a robust understanding of this important history and its continuous influence on our communities today.”

On Aug. 24, 2019, Gov. Northam signed an executive order to create a commission to review “content, instructional practices and resources currently used to teach African American history in the Commonwealth,” according to the Virginia Secretary of Education website

The commission consisted of academic historians and took input and public comments from faith-based communities, parents, students and over 56 museums and historical sites, commission member Anne Evans said. Evans was a social studies teacher and department chair for 20 years before becoming the K-12 Social Studies and World Languages Coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools, she said. 

UR president emeritus and professor of humanities Edward Ayers also served on the committee. 

The Civil War has been inaccurately described in the past as a conflict between the industrial North and the agrarian South, which had misportrayed the true cause of the war, Ayers said. “Students need to know these details of history because otherwise, they won’t trust history.”

According to the commission's final report, “[Virginia is] a state that for too long has told a false story of ourselves."

Commission members worked to find technical edits related to African American history in the largely Eurocentric Virginia curriculum, including glossed-over details, factual errors and omissions, Evans said. The edits were released Aug. 31, 2020, and the recommendations were accepted and went into effect on Oct. 16, 2020, according to the Virginia Department of Education website

Specific pieces of history that the commission reviewed included misinformation surrounding the Civil War and, notably, the lack of any direct reference to lynching, Evans said.

In the process of reviewing the curriculum, the commission also found problems outside of African American history that needed to be changed. Technical edits were found in Indigenous history, Asian American history and history involving women, Evans said. These edits will be proposed during the standard curriculum review, which takes place every seven years, she said. 

For example, in kindergarten and first grade students were taught about Indigenous “legends,” which has since been changed to use the word “stories” instead, Evans said. 

“Oral traditions are passed down from generation to generation, but they are based on things that happened, whereas legend has a mythical implication,” she said. “A lot of people think little kids are too young and they can’t understand, but words matter very much.”

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Evans and Ayers have extended their work to assure a more accurate interpretation of U.S. and Virginia history to other areas. 

Ayers has continued this work at UR for the New American History Digital Scholarship Lab, for which he serves as the executive director, he said. Evans also works with New American History as the director of education and outreach, according to the New American History website.

New American History seeks to “uncover the untold stories and missing pieces of what we know or thought we already knew about the American past,” according to its website. 

President and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities Jonathan Zur was also on the commission and spoke of some of the other ways this work is still being pursued. 

“Some commission members remained active throughout the recent General Assembly session advocating for some of the policy changes we recommended,” he said. 

The State Board of Education is currently in the process of updating history standards from suggestions by the commission and working to educate teachers on these new curriculum changes, Zur said. 

“In 30 years of my time in public schools, we have not seen a change like this,” Evans said. “This really is a pretty groundbreaking step forward.”

Along with the technical edits, the commission also recommended that teachers learn this history themselves so they are better equipped to teach their students, Evans said.

“Every student deserves to see themselves in American history,” she said.

Contact features writer Anna Ridilla at anna.ridilla@richmond.edu.

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