Searing images from this month’s mostly white insurrection in Washington, D.C.—including a hangman’s noose on the Capitol grounds and the Confederate flag carried inside the U.S. Capitol—harken back to another era when both were tools and symbols of white supremacy across the country.
But relatively few students have learned about previous sordid moments that foreshadowed this year’s efforts to instill terror and violently overturn an election such as the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, widely thought to be the only successful coup in U.S. history, and the Tulsa Race Massacre.
New attention to what is taught in history class has sparked debate over the approach that schools should take.
“In secondary education, we tend to sidestep the controversy, the trauma, the pain, the suffering that’s embedded in history,” said Karlos Hill, an associate professor and chair of the Department of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma. “For some to tell the truth about American history, in particular to tell the truth about Black history, would run counter to what history is supposed to do, which is to make us more patriotic, more flag loving and flag-waving.”
Hill created and leads the Tulsa Race Massacre Institute, a professional development program that helps Oklahoma teachers craft lesson plans to teach about the white mob that in 1921 stormed a Black community in Tulsa, Okla., ravaging a thriving business district and leaving dozens of people dead in their wake.
Oklahoma officially incorporated the massacre into the statewide school curriculum in January 2020.
“We’re trying to make sure that we don’t have a whitewashed version of history,” said Amanda Solivan, the social studies content manager for the Tulsa school district. “Clearly, our country is struggling in terms of how we have some critical conversations about race.”
In the waning months of his presidency, Donald Trump used his platform to warn of a “crusade against American history” and threatened schools that adopted a curriculum based on the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examines how slavery shaped the United States and highlights the historical contributions of Black Americans.
On Monday, the White House released the report of the presidential 1776 Commission, which argues that schools need “pro-American” curriculum because American heritage and principles are under attack from revisionist history. Trump did not appoint any professional historians.
Pushing back against Trump’s call for “patriotic education” well before the report’s release, scholars argued that students should learn a complete version of U.S. history and be empowered to debate the nation’s virtues and flaws.
States debate what and how to teach about America’s racist past
Teaching U.S. history has long been politicized and racialized. What students learn and how textbooks present history varies from state to state, school district to district, and even school to school.
The politicization ramped up last fall when Trump threatened to cut the funding of California schools that teach a curriculum based on the New York Times’ 1619 Project.
Trump lacked the authority to cut the federal funding, but he was not the only federal official who ranted against the framing of the project and its use in schools.
“They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech in July 2020. “It’s a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people.”
In a year that brought a national reckoning on the country’s history of racism and white supremacy, the debate over how to frame history is ongoing in some states.
In North Carolina, some Democratic members of the state Board of Education are pushing to make the social studies standards more inclusive, with more focus on how government and economic policies have denied opportunities for some people. The suggested changes were sparked by the national protests over the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people.
“When you’re arguing for more inclusive standards, what you’re really saying is that there are groups of people whose stories have not been adequately told,” said James Ford, a Black man and member of the state board.
Ford, a former social studies teacher, was the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year. He is currently the executive director of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Center for Racial Equity in Education.
The North Carolina debate over the social studies standards has split along partisan lines. Board members, including Ford, who were appointed by the state’s Democratic governor largely support the draft standards which encourage American history classes to “explain how systemic racism, oppression and discrimination ... have impacted equality and power in America.” The current version of the standard focuses on how groups sought to expand or restrict access to freedom and equality. Republican board members have raised objections.
Republican State Lt. Gov. James Robinson, who also serves on the Board of Education, has labeled the efforts to reframe the social studies standards as “divisive.”
“We need to be teaching students about their common experiences as Americans, and in order to do that, I don’t think we need to separate into groups,” said Robinson, the state’s first black lieutenant governor, said during a state board meeting in early January.
The debate is ongoing.
A teacher asks her students to compare and contrast history
Last January, North Carolina decided to reduce the number of U.S. history courses required for graduation from two to one to make room for a mandated personal finance course. The change will condense the last 270-plus years of U.S. history into one course, possibly making it more difficult to cover historical incidents such as the Wilmington coup, when in 1898, white supremacists violently overthrew the city’s elected, racially integrated government. It’s been described as the only successful coup d’etat in United States history.
Some historians consider the Wilmington coup a turning point in the state and across the South that marked a rigid return to racial segregation and widespread disenfranchisement of Black residents across the region.
“It often is not taught because it disrupts the American narrative of meritocracy, of unfailing guaranteed freedoms,” Ford said. “It’s a desire to crop other people out of the historical picture.”
The lasting images of the coup are of a white mob, posing in front of the charred ruins of Wilmington’s only black newspaper.
Whitney Coonradt, a social studies teacher at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, has taught her students about the city’s coup for years.
In the days after the mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Coonradt had her students look at images from the riot and write about how it made them feel and what it made them think.
She saw parallels between images of the mob in the District of Columbia this month, with people livestreaming the chaos and posing for pictures in congressional office and the congressional chambers, and the mob that posed for pictures to record their devastation of Wilmington.
“That kind of white entitlement and justification and overwhelming confidence in doing something that is so blatantly illegal and against our principles,” said Coonradt, who is white.
“How does the city even begin to move forward if we aren’t even sharing the same facts and memories?” Coonradt asked.
Can schools help prevent the Capitol insurrection from happening again?
The same question could be asked of the nation.
Anton Schulzki, the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, has heard from educators who are not comfortable discussing the attempted coup at the Capitol.
Some are reluctant because of their political beliefs, but others because of the sentiment in their larger communities that side with Trump’s effort to overturn the election.
“In some of those places, where the conversations are not happening, is where they need to occur,” said Schulzki, a high school social studies teacher in Colorado. “We never talked about that stuff in the past. You could argue that is how we wound up with what happened.”
Hill, the University of Oklahoma professor, has written books about the Tulsa Race Massacre, the history of lynching in the United States, and the murder of Emmet Till, a Black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting or whistling at a white woman.
“Our goals in teaching history often determine what we teach and what we emphasize,” Hill said. “You can create love for country even as you offer up critical examinations of the country.”
Lies about the rape or accosting of white women by Black men were also used to rouse the support for the massacres in Tulsa and Wilmington.
In 2021, the lies were used to fuel a battle over control of the presidency and the United States government. Many of the participants in the attack on the U.S. Capitol that left at least five people dead labeled themselves as patriots. In social media posts prior to the attack, two Republican member of the U.S. House referenced the insurrection as our “1776 moment,” a reference to the nation’s origins.
“There’s nothing worse than folks who are ill-informed as to what is actually going on in the world,” Schulzki said. “That’s more dangerous, I think, than anything.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Violent History of White Supremacy Is Rarely Taught in Schools. It Should Be