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Florida's Black history education standards were approved amid criticism

Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. defended new African American history standards amid criticism from teachers and Democratic lawmakers. (Colin Hackley/News Service of Florida)
Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. defended new African American history standards amid criticism from teachers and Democratic lawmakers. (Colin Hackley/News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE — The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved new academic standards for instruction about African American history, after numerous teachers from across Florida objected to the changes and asked the board to put the proposal on hold.

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. pushed back on assertions by groups such as the Florida Education Association teachers union and the NAACP Florida State Conference that the standards “omit or rewrite key historical facts about the Black experience” and ignore state law about required instruction.

Diaz defended the standards, while commending a workgroup involved in developing the curriculum and the Department of Education’s African American History Task Force.

“As age-appropriate, we go into some of the tougher subjects, all the way into the beginnings of the slave trade, Jim Crow laws, the civil-rights movement and everything that occurred throughout our history,” Diaz said.

The new standards are designed to guide lessons from kindergarten through high school.

For example, the kindergarten standards focus on teaching students about important historical figures.

“Recognize African American inventors and explorers (i.e., Lonnie Johnson [inventor], Mae C. Jemison, George Washington Carver),” the kindergarten standards require.

One part of the high-school standards directs students to describe “the contributions of Africans to society, science, poetry, politics, oratory, literature, music, dance, Christianity and exploration in the United States from 1776-1865.”

But during an at-times tense meeting Wednesday in Orlando, critics, including teachers and Democratic state lawmakers, asked the board to table the standards to allow for changes.

“These new standards present only half the story and half the truth. When we name political figures who worked to end slavery but leave anyone who worked to keep slavery legal nameless, kids are forced to fill in the blanks for themselves,” said Carol Cleaver, an Escambia County science teacher.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, pointed to part of the middle-school standards that would require instruction to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

“I am very concerned by these standards, especially … the notion that enslaved people benefited from being enslaved. It’s inaccurate and a scary standard for us to establish in our educational curriculum,” Eskamani said.

Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, pointed to the same part of the standards and called it “such an insult.”

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, referred to her time as a teacher and college administrator as she criticized the proposal.

“If I were still a professor, I would do what I did very infrequently — I’d have to give this a grade of ‘I’ (for) incomplete,” Thompson said.

Thompson cited part of the high-school standards requiring instruction that “includes acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans but is not limited to 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C. Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.”

Thompson’s Senate district includes Ocoee, where Black people were killed on election day in 1920 by a mob of white residents. The violence took place after Moses Norman, an African American resident, was denied the right to vote.

Thompson objected to wording in the standards that said violence was perpetrated “by” African Americans.

“When you look at the history currently, it suggests that the massacre was sparked by violence from African Americans. That’s blaming the victim. When in fact, it was other individuals who came into the Black community and killed individuals, burned homes and schools and lodges,” Thompson said.

But Paul Burns, chancellor of the Department of Education’s Division of K-12 Public Schools, disputed the criticism.

“For the folks in the media and in the teachers union who are watching, we want you to please pay close attention because you’ve been peddling really a false narrative,” Burns said.

Updates to the African American history curriculum were required by a controversial 2022 law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act.”

The law required, in part, that instruction include “the vital contributions of African Americans to build and strengthen American society and celebrate the inspirational stories of African Americans who prospered, even in the most difficult circumstances.”

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.