African American History Matters, Now Offered in Virginia Public Schools

By Jordan Sheppard

(JAC 310 assignment for Prof. Waltz)

Starting this fall, high school students in Prince William County in Virginia can take a new elective course to learn more about African American history.

"Black history is American history, but for too long the story we have told was insufficient and inadequate," said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in a press release. "The introduction of this groundbreaking course is a first step toward our shared goal of ensuring all Virginia students have a fuller, more accurate understanding of our history, and can draw important connections from those past events to our present day.

Northam announced the course last month, after working with the Virginia African American History Education Commission revising the state's curriculum to include more African American history. Since August of 2019, the Virginia Department of Education, Virtual Virginia and WHRO Public Media have teamed up with history professors, teachers, and historians to create the course, which will be offered in 16 school districts.

They include the counties of Prince William, Alleghany, Amherst, Arlington, Carroll, Chesterfield, Covington, Franklin, Henrico, Henry, Loudon, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Winchester.

Beginning with pre-colonial Africa, the course will cover the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and other events to the present day.

"As a Black woman, an African American history class is not just a class, it is a guide to help you move through life," said Ayele Aziaba, a former Unity Reed High School student. "Had I been educated in school about my ancestors and their struggles and achievements, that would have given me a great insight, but I had to learn most of what I know now through experiences as a black woman."

Students will not be required to take the course, a controversial aspect.

"It should be a required class so students will understand how important African Americans are to this country, a country which we built," said Vera Bordoh-Ansah, a former Unity Reed High School student. "By it being optional, only those interested will take this class and our history should not be something you want to learn, but something that you need to learn."

The course comes at a time of increased interest in Black history. Black Lives Matter protests across the country have encouraged conversations about race in America.

"I think what is going on right now played a factor in why we have this course," said Verita Bordoh-Ansah, a former Unity Reed High School student. "The protests are forcing people to acknowledge and open their eyes to what is really going on in this county."

To some, a course on African American history is one that has been long overdue.

"This is a good start, but classes on African American history should have been in the curriculum a while ago," said Maiyah Rawls, first-year student at Unity Reed High School.

After taking the course students should be able to:

  • Identify and understand African origins and developments of the Black experience in North America.
  • Evaluate how African Americans have shaped, contributed to and have been shaped by the institutions, policies, and laws established by federal, state, and local governments.
  • Evaluate and interpret the various paths of civic responsibility that led to quests for equality, justice, and freedom for individuals and communities facing barriers and oppression based on race, class, and gender.
  • Analyze and understand how the institution of slavery in the United States shaped beliefs about race and the supremacy of one race over another and influences America's economy and politics.

Some believe the course should be expanded.

"We have to consider that most history courses in school systems fall under "social studies", an extremely broad term," said Kendall Willis, junior at University of Virginia and former Unity Reed High School student. "It would be more beneficial to not just teach the history but to explore the social science perspectives in African American history."

At the end of the course, each student will be required to complete a capstone project based on independent research about African American history.

"Without the arms, legs, blood, sweat and tears of the African American man and woman, there would be no architecture, infrastructure or strong standing economy," said Verita Bordah-Ansah. "African Americans were essential in making the foundation of this country."

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