When Did Black History Start Being Taught in Schools and Why Should You Care?

Credit: Oberholster Venita

Since Black history is such a controversial and multifaceted topic, there is no simple answer to the question of when it started being taught in schools. There have been many attempts in the past to integrate the topics of Black culture and history into the regular school curricula, and that is the mission that continues to the present day.

Perhaps one of the best examples of a successful introduction of the subject is Black History Month and how it is celebrated at schools on a national level. Even with Black History Month, the way we teach African American history in schools continues to spark heated debates and contradicting viewpoints.

We cannot say when the lives, culture, and history of the Black folk began being taught in the K-12 curriculum exactly. What we can do is look at the roots of the subject, the way it progressed over the last century, and identify what we should do to mend the issues regarding the study of Black history that persist in our educational system.

When Did Schools Start Teaching Black History—What We Know

We can trace the roots of Black history as a subject taught in K-12 public schools to one notable person—Carter G. Woodson, the American historian and journalist who was born at the end of the 19th and lived throughout the entire first half of the 20th century. In the year 1926, along with other members of his organization, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), he started the Negro History Week that later became what we know and celebrate as Black History Month today.

Woodson’s objective was for schools in America and beyond to start teaching students about the history of the Black people. His contribution to the phenomenon remains almost unrivaled. With his foundation, he wrote various textbooks, created school course programs, and started The Journal of African American History—one of the first that would publish scholarly papers on Black lives, culture, and history.

The Negro History Week—commemorated in the second week of February to match the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass—was welcomed by a certain number of educators and Black community members. It wasn’t until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that Woodson’s mission had its first prominent effects.

Only in the middle of the 20th century did the U.S. government pass laws to stamp out history textbooks that depicted the Black populations in a discriminatory way. Soon, following the example set by the changes made to the California law in 1961, seven states introduced laws stating or recommending that Black history be taught in schools.

Here’s a timeline of the beginnings of Black history teachings in schools:

Year Notable Events
1915 The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is established.
1916 The Journal of African American History is put into print.
1926 Negro History Week starts being celebrated.
The 1960s Textbooks with racial discrimination subtext are being banned. 
1961 The law regulating that Black history starts being taught in schools is passed by the State of California, followed by other states doing the same.
1969 The Social Education paper published a special edition promoting the importance of curricula that includes the study of Black history.

The Disagreements About Teaching Black History in Schools

Black history, as a subject to be integrated into different aspects of K-12 curricula is a relatively novel notion. It is also extremely complex and chock full of sensitive narratives. For these reasons, the way it is and should be taught to students has always been widely questioned, debated, and even criticized.

Some of the most common controversies revolve around:

  • The fact that Black history is being taught only one month in a school year
  • Approaches to teaching Black history
  • The question of whether or not Black history is American history

Why Teach Black History Only One Month a Year?

When looking into the disagreements scholars have about teaching Black history, we can safely start by examining the conflicting views on Black History Month itself. 

While many look forward to the period and celebrate the time in all earnestness—including teachers who relish the opportunity to break away from the usual white-centered topics in the mainstream curricula—others condemn Black History Month for one simple reason. They feel Black history should be taught throughout the school year rather than a single month.

Do Schools Teach Black History Properly?

Another factor scholars cannot decide on is the approach teachers are supposed to take when relating Black history to their students. Some feel the subject should be subtly integrated into the regular history subject to promote a neutral stance on social and political issues. Others would have the narratives of Black lives serve as an example of social justice, or rather injustice, and teach students the value of resilience.

Is Black History American History?

The third debate we must not neglect to mention is the one regarding the distinctions between Black and American histories. 

One group seems to believe teaching Black history is essential because it has influenced the culture and notable events in America. Given the inextricable link the Black communities have always had to our country, it could safely be said that Black history is American history, and not a separate one.

Others consider the concept harmful and ignorant of the huge chunk of Black history that is not tied to the American one. To teach students only that the black population was forcefully migrated to the Americas is to turn a blind eye to this ethnic group’s past on the African continent. Black people had their civilizations there—languages, traditions, and religions included—that make up a much larger part of their history than the one on the American soil.

Black History in School Curricula by the Numbers

The statistics regarding the extent to which Black history is taught in K-12 schools are far from encouraging. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Black history was taught during only 8%–9% of total class time in American schools in 2015. 

This contradicts other notable findings of the study. Teachers, in general, believe teaching Black history to students of K-12 level is vital to their understanding of their national history as well as their subsequent personal and professional growth. Yet, they often hold back from including Black history in all areas of the school program. They believe:

  • Their students might not be emotionally prepared to learn and understand certain narratives of the subject
  • There aren’t enough resources to teach Black history
  • They don’t have enough confidence to teach the subject

We Need To Change the Way We Teach Black History—But How?

Credit: Mohamed Hassan

From everything we have seen, it can only be concluded that the time to transform school culture is nigh and that we need a new approach to teaching Black history to our students. You might be asking yourself how. You can start by exploring:

  1. How you can integrate Black history throughout the entire school curriculum
  2. What the ways you can include the origins of Black Americans into your Black history lessons are
  3. Whether you can implement the positive stories about Black lives along with the harsh realities of their modern history into your classes

Schools Teach Black History One Month a Year—You Can Do Better

You might be among those concerned about narrowing the importance of Black history down by teaching it only one month in the school year. Perhaps still, you feel like Black History Month is only perpetuating the internalized racism by separating the Black people from their white neighbors. In any case, you should consider bending your school’s established curriculum rules in favor of teaching Black history all months of the year, rather than just one.

If you lack the skills or resources to do so, you can check out the University of Missouri’s Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education. The organization was established in 2018 to help teachers who wish to incorporate Black history into all of their classes. You can attend the center’s regular conferences and workshops to gain knowledge on the topics as well as pick up ideas on how to better the teaching of Black history in your own classes.

How To Teach Your Students That Black History Came From Africa

The founder of the Carter Center, Lagarrett J. King observes that you should not allow enslavement to be the first period in Black history your students learn about. You need to accentuate that the ancestry and cultural heritage of the Black folk can be traced back to many years before the colonization of Africa.

For example, whenever you have a class on the American Civil War of the 1860s or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, you can start it with the prelude into the African kingdoms. Explain that they were ruled and inhabited by the majority of the Black population that was forced to migrate to the U.S. and adopt the culture, tradition, and language of the foreign nation.

What Schools Don’t Teach About Black History—But You Can

Educate your students that Black history starts much earlier than the American one does, but also focus on the positive aspects of that history.

Abolishing slavery and paving the way to greater social equality in the latter half of the 20th century is relevant even to this day and age, but your students have to learn more than that. Black history and the people that it involves aren’t only the victims of oppression, but artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and scientists.

Only then can you promote true diversity in your school and work toward creating a school environment that is safe for all.

Why Is Teaching Black History Important?

Since we’re nowhere near getting rid of social injustice and race discrimination, it is vital that we shape our students’ minds in the way that fosters their understanding of the major issues in society.

You should teach Black history so that the future generations are free from the pre-conceived unethical notions of race.

On that note, let’s look in more detail at why teaching Black history matters to both your:

  1. Black students
  2. White students

The Relevance of Teaching Black Students Black History

Your Black students may be nurturing some misconceptions about themselves that society engraves in their minds. You need to teach them their history so that they can grow into adults who are ready to realize their dreams without having to struggle with that. 

To achieve this, it is of utmost importance that you focus on the positive Black narratives when teaching Black history to Black students. You can start by showing them that they come from ancient thriving civilizations that had their own languages, traditions, and cultures way before they were forced to assimilate into the foreign one. 

Why You Should Teach Black History to White Students and How

Your white students should be taught Black history for similar reasons. It will enable them to evolve into grown-ups who can recognize and be inspired to break the cycles of systemic or institutional racism in any career they choose to pursue.

Though we need to include positive narratives into Black history teaching, the enslavement, emancipation, and further dehumanization of the Blacks should not be neglected. Often, they are nothing but sanitized and rushed history lessons in our education systems.

Particularly in high schools, your students should be introduced to all the ways Black communities suffered—not only in the remote past but even in post-civil rights America.

For example, a lesson on the destruction of the black businesses in Tulsa—an incident inappropriately referred to as race riots—is inevitable.

Innovative Activities To Teach About Black History in Education

Credit: Tamarcus Brown

When you’re relating Black history to your students, the old teaching rule still applies—your lessons should be interesting and engaging to be effective.

Regardless of the subject you’re teaching or the lesson you’re focusing on, you should come up with novel and interactive ways to approach it.

For example, when it comes to Black history, you could have your students:

  1. Write short biographies of important people
  2. Listen to songs and analyze their meanings

What Are Some Noteworthy Black History Figures That Are Not Taught in Schools? 

Not only is it important to tell your students about Black historical figures that don’t get enough representation, but you are certain to spark their interest if you introduce them to people and concepts they have never heard of before.

When you have a class about a particular set of notable people, you can do much regarding classroom activities and the homework you set.

If you’re a history teacher, you can always make your students write minibiographies of the personalities you teach or have them come up with made-up interviews with the historical figures of their choice. You will undoubtedly boost their critical reading and writing skills this way.

Even if you don’t teach history, you can make your students learn about the Black experience. Why not make them paint portraits of people from history in your visual arts class? This is just one example of how you can integrate the study of Black history throughout the entire curriculum.

Here’s a table depicting some notable Black historical figures that high school teachers don’t usually teach about:

A Historical Figure Occupation Notable for Being:
Dorothy Dandridge Actor The first African American nominated for an Academy Award for the role in “Carmen Jones.”
Amenhotep III Egyptian ruler One of the first pharaohs that saw to it that his country thrived in trade, finance, and education during his reign.
Bayard Rustin Activist An openly LGBTQ+ civil and social rights activist that contributed to the launching of several organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner Inventor The inventor of the first sanitary belt, despite not being credited for her achievement.

Make Songs a Part of Black History in a School Curriculum

Another fun activity you can employ to teach Black history is to have your students listen to the songs about Black lives and analyze the lyrics and song meanings.

The obvious example would be Michael Jackson’s “Black and White,” but if you want to go for something edgy and unconventional, why not introduce your students to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane?” The song is not only one of the folk legend’s most successful, but it also relates a true-life story of Rubin Carter—a Black boxer who was wrongly accused of triple murder and ended by being a director for the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted after his overdue acquittal. Dylan’s movie-like approach to the lyrics is bound to engage your students with the story, while the song will have them swaying or dancing to the fast beat at the same time.

A bonus suggestion to French teachers is Feu! Chatterton’s “Harlem”—a mesmerizing number titled after the New York district that was made famous for the Harlem Renaissance. You could ask your students to analyze the lyrics so that they can practice their French, learn about Black history, and explore how varied lyrics and poetry writing strategies can be.

Are Schools Not Teaching Black History—What Do You Think?

Do you believe that innovations in schools are inevitable?

Do you feel that the school curriculum is constricting you when you want to teach your students about the entirety of Black history, and not focus only on certain aspects of it?

If so, you can help shape a school culture that is conducive to real-life learning and inclusive of all its students by writing your own story or your own opinions, and we’ll share your words with the world.