Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

What the Country’s First Mandatory Black History Course Can Teach Us Today

The surprising educational reform in segregated, 1940s Chicago
By Ashley D. Dennis — January 30, 2024 5 min read
012024 op BHM Dennis 2
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When people think about Black history in schools, they might think of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course that Florida’s education department banned. Or perhaps their minds go back to the student protesters in the 1960s who called for the creation of Black studies courses and departments. But decades before these curricular fights, the Chicago public schools mandated a Black studies curriculum—the first mandatory curriculum of its kind in the United States.

Despite educational inequities between Black and white schools, every Chicago public school received this groundbreaking curriculum.

Mandatory in the city’s roughly 350 schools between 1942 and 1945, the curriculum gained national and international attention for introducing Black and white children to the contributions of Black people in all areas of society.

Black women were the driving force behind the unprecedented education reform. Madeline Morgan, a highly educated Chicago public school teacher, advocated the curriculum, conducted extensive research to develop it, and then designed the units for grades 1-8. Her colleague Bessie King assisted her. Morgan also received support from her network of Black women librarians, principals, and teachers in Chicago.

This overlooked history should inspire educators to continue the fight for accurate representation of Black history and culture in schools. All children benefit from learning truthful and more comprehensive narratives about the past.

Officially known as the “Supplemental Units for a Course of Study in Social Studies,” the Black history curriculum was intended to enrich existing social studies lesson plans with information about life on the African continent and African American accomplishments.

The 1st grade unit included stories about Black Pullman porters and police officers, vocalist Marian Anderson, symphony writer Florence Price, and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The 2nd grade unit featured agronomist George Washington Carver, singer Dorothy Maynor, and poet Langston Hughes.

The 3rd grade unit highlighted occupations and distant cultures. Students learned about life in West Africa’s Dahomey (modern-day Benin). The unit also addressed the history of African empires and the culture of contemporary Africa, including art, music, and religions. This history, Morgan implied, could help African Americans take pride in African history and culture.

By the 7th and 8th grades, children examined slave insurrections, abolitionists, and the heroism of Black soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Overall, Morgan believed this curriculum could transform race relations by educating Black and white children about Black people’s contributions to history, literature, science, education, and the arts.

The Black history curriculum was impressive, especially for the context in which it was being taught. Chicago public schools in the 1940s were segregated, overcrowded, and underfunded for Black children. Many Black children had to contend with white teachers who did not care about their education.

Yet, the curriculum received approval from the superintendent of the Chicago public schools. There was an alignment of interests between Black educators who advocated accurate and inclusive narratives of history and white administrators who wanted to foster racial tolerance, democracy, and citizenship—all rallying points during World War II. As our country fought for democracy and condemned racist Nazi ideology abroad, the nation routinely denied Black citizens their democratic rights and perpetuated some of the same racist ideologies at home. Teaching children tolerance and the contributions of different ethnic groups became a trendy method to address this hypocrisy during the war.

While white administrators may have had ulterior motives for supporting the curriculum, Morgan and her network of Black women educators hoped for “intellectual emancipation.” They wanted to develop racial pride in Black children by challenging lies in social studies textbooks, including that Black people did not have a history and were inferior to white people.

Morgan also asserted that the curriculum would help reduce prejudice in white students. She endorsed the curriculum’s potential to instill democratic ideals and foster racial unity.

Once the mandatory units were distributed to all Chicago public schools in 1942, Morgan and the Black history curriculum were widely celebrated at home and abroad. The U.S. Office of Education (the precursor to today’s federal Education Department) and members of school districts around the country requested copies. Morgan received letters from South America, Africa, and Europe praising and expressing interest in the work.

These requests demonstrate far-flung interest in this era in eliminating racial prejudice through education. They also suggest that there were few educational materials about Black people available to American students at that time.

Black and white students found the information enjoyable and appreciated the new perspective the curriculum offered about Black life. Some of the remarks made by students include: “I am proud to know that I’m a Negro” and “Why haven’t we heard about Negro achievements before?” These remarks suggest the curriculum had the desired effect of imparting racial pride to African American children and changing white attitudes toward African Americans.

Unfortunately, the state legislature’s education committee terminated the curriculum’s mandatory status in 1945. Legislators did not explain their decision to downgrade the Black history units to an optional component of instruction. However, it is not surprising that the end of its mandatory status coincided with the end of World War II. There was no longer an incentive to foster racial tolerance and unity on the home front.

The history of Chicago’s early mandatory Black history curriculum can remind us of Black people’s long struggle for education that attested to their humanity, intelligence, and historical contributions. Recent backlash against AP African American Studies, children’s books by Black authors, and so-called critical race theory in K-12 schools demonstrates that challenging anti-Blackness in schools is a hard but important fight.

This history also highlights the urgency of mandatory Black history curricula today—not as short-term political appeasement measures but as steps toward educational and racial justice. Madeline Morgan was correct that Black history is not only beneficial to Black children; it is necessary for all children.

Explore the Collection

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2024 edition of Education Week as What the Country’s First Mandatory Black History Course Can Teach Us Today

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