Bill requires Delaware schools to give lessons in Black history and ‘racism and intolerance’

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker says it’s not enough to teach about racism and slavery during Black History Month.

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High school senior Tariah Hyland says she hasn't been taught much about Black history during her 12 years in Delaware public schools. (Courtesy of Tariah Hyland)

High school senior Tariah Hyland says she hasn't been taught much about Black history during her 12 years in Delaware public schools. (Courtesy of Tariah Hyland)

Tariah Hyland learned about slavery and Black civil rights icons like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during her 12 years in Delaware public schools.

“And then if we’re lucky, Malcolm X,’’ Hyland told WHYY News. “Even then we still aren’t really taught the truth about their work and what they fought for. It’s almost like watered down and diluted knowledge about these very powerful leaders.”

So Hyland, a senior at St. Georges Technical High School who co-founded the Delaware Black Student Coalition, jumped at the chance to help make Black history part of the mandatory curriculum in K-12 schools, rather than merely an afterthought or part of February’s Black History Month lessons.

She and other students helped lawmakers craft legislation that would require districts to have Black history woven “into all educational programming.” The bill overwhelmingly passed the state House last week and appears likely to clear the Senate and take effect in the 2022-23 academic year.

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Hyland says mandating Black history education will teach “everyone about the truth of this country and about the people living in this country,’’ Hyland said. “The people that built this country.”

Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, a Wilmington Democrat who is the prime House sponsor, said the initiative stemmed from discussions among members of the Legislative Black Caucus after the General Assembly mandated education about the Holocaust and genocide for the current school year.

The idea gained steam after nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis nearly a year ago. Educators and parents, as well as students such as Hyland, helped her write the legislation. She said it is one of the most comprehensive bills in the country, even as many states are putting an increased emphasis on Black history. The bill passed the House 33-7 last week, with one abstention.

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker says lessons in Black history shouldn’t just occur during Black History Month. (State of Delaware)

Dorsey Walker stressed that Black history won’t be a single class, or just part of history lessons.

“It will be incorporating Black history as part of the actual curriculum. So it will be part of the arts, literature, science, math,” she said.

The effort in Delaware aims to ensure that students learn extensively, as the bill says, of the “triumphs, setbacks and contributions” of Black people to the United States and the world. Among the Delaware bill’s intentions is to “examine the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and intolerance.”

Districts and charter schools can devise their own curriculum across several academic subjects, as long as it contains minimum requirements including:

  • The history and culture of Black people prior to the African and Black Diaspora and their contributions to science, art, and literature.
  • The significance of enslavement in the development of the American economy.
  • The relationship between white supremacy, racism, and American slavery.
  • The central role racism played in the Civil War.
  • How the tragedy of enslavement was perpetuated through segregation and federal, state, and local laws.
  • The contributions of Black people to American life, history, literature, economy, politics, and culture.
  • The socioeconomic struggle Black people endured, and continue to endure, in working to achieve fair treatment in the United States; as well as efforts to receive equal treatment.
  • Black figures in national history and in Delaware history.

Beyond those topics, the curricula must “recognize the impact of racial and historical trauma on students,” and “stimulate students’ reflection on the roles and responsibilities of citizens in democratic societies to combat racism, inequality, and discrimination through tools of resistance such as protest, reform, and celebration.”

‘A wonderful, and honestly overdue, effort’

Dorsey Walker said kids should be taught about historical figures such as Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught 17th century author, surveyor, landowner and farmer who was knowledgeable about mathematics and natural history. He helped with the survey that established the original borders of Washington, D.C.

“It’s ensuring that our students know the historical context in the contributions of Black people,’’ Dorsey Walker said.

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She stressed that the lessons will aim to educate students of all races and ethnicities. “So it’s not just exclusive,’’ she said. “It’s so that we can be inclusive so that people learn each other’s differences. That’s how we start moving our society to a better place, when we start having an appreciation for one another.”

Sen. Tizzy Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who is lead sponsor in her chamber, which her party controls, says the bill has plenty of support and is a welcome companion to efforts to reform police practices and the criminal justice system.

“In the post-George Floyd murder era, it’s just a really opportune time to make sure that our conversation is full. And that includes conversations that happen within our schools.”

Lockman said Black history and culture are too often left out of lessons. “This is about making sure that that does not occur, and that a significant proportion of African American students are able to see themselves represented in the curriculum,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful, and honestly, overdue effort.”

Sarah Bucic, vice president of advocacy for the Delaware Parent Teacher Association, agrees. Her child Jay is a seventh-grader at a Wilmington middle school.

Bucic, who graduated high school in the late 1990s, said she learned about civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and agricultural scientist George Washington Carver but only received limited information.

“You don’t get the complete stories. We get like bits and pieces. I love this bill because it’s everything,” Bucic told WHYY News, singling out the “significance of white supremacy” and the fact that local Black history will be included with a national focus.

Bucic said the National Parent Teacher Association supports “the implementation of all types of diverse and inclusive curricula. We want to be sure we’re intentionally including all students in teaching. We advocate for all children. And there’s really been a lot of research that when we include our children and when we give everyone’s stories, there are actually positive educational results.”

Dorrell Green heads the Red Clay Consolidated School District, the largest in Delaware. He’s one of just two Black superintendents in Delaware’s 19 school districts.

Red Clay Superintendent Dorrell Green supports having a mandatory Black history curriculum. (WHYY file)

Green welcomes the bill and said it will augment the work Red Clay is already doing. Two of its five schools have a Black studies course, and the district is developing a comparative cultural studies course.

“This is important work,’’ Green said. “From a Delaware lens, there have been amazing contributions among Blacks and African Americans in Delaware state history. And obviously on the national stage as well.

“We’re at a tipping point in society where I think we just need to come together and acknowledge the work and contribution and value everyone’s identity but more importantly,  those who are crying out to see themselves in American society in terms of the contributions that have been made to our great nation.”

The state Department of Education did not take a position on the bill because local districts set their own policies. But Education Secretary Susan Bunting said she was heartened to see students participate in crafting the bill and lobbying lawmakers to have Black history to be part of the mandatory curriculum.

Though Bunting stressed that the state “does not dictate what is taught in schools,’’ she said educators “need to think broadly and be inclusive in what we have our kids learn in school.”

Hyland, who testified at a House committee hearing, said she will learn more herself when she begins her studies this fall at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C.

But she wants Delaware students in the system now, and in coming years, to gain that knowledge sooner rather than later.

“It’s very, very important to me for future generations,’’ Hyland said. “I have cousins and siblings that are going through the same education system that I went through. And I definitely wouldn’t want them to endure the same untruthful education that I had to endure.”

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