High school student Ezinne Mba grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. She learned in school about how her town was established by abolitionists in the 1850s and how during that time, anti-slavery Kansas Jayhawkers were involved in armed conflicts against pro-slavery forces.
But when she moved to Nevada, Missouri, in 2016, she got a different kind of history education. Nevada was the capital for Bushwhackers, who were pro-slavery guerrilla fighters during the Civil War. The Bushwhackers would engage in conflicts with groups like the Jayhawkers.
“There’s actually a whole week in Nevada where they celebrate the Bushwhackers,” Mba said of the annual citywide festival. “It’s crazy because my whole childhood, I was learning about how the Bushwhackers were fighting for the Confederacy to win.”
This stark contrast in Mba’s education on enslavement and the Civil War reflects a growing critique of social studies curricula in the U.S. — that students are not being taught the full history of the country. With recent mass protests against police violence bringing the issue of racism to the forefront, educators say that understanding the workings of racism in present-day America means properly learning about the sins of its past.
“Any contemporary topics that are happening now are probably not within the history curriculum, so therefore, you have to turn to the teachers,” said LaGarrett King, founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri. “And teachers are what we would call curriculum gatekeepers. They control what comes in and out of the classroom, for the most part.”
It’s been more than 400 years since the first arrival of enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony. The consequences of enslavement still exist into the present day, including racial disparities in mass incarceration and police brutality.
Kansas and Missouri share their own long, violent history stemming from contentious conflicts over enslavement, which led to the Border Wars, also known as Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces fought for control and influence of the Kansas territory.
In January 1861, after seven years of fighting, Kansas entered the union as a free state, while Missouri was a slave state. The border war between Kansas and Missouri foreshadowed the American Civil War that would begin just months after Kansas’ entry into the union.
But students in the U.S. still struggle to answer the most basic questions about enslavement in the country or even make connections between the past and present, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization. The group found that only 8% of high school students knew that enslavement was the central cause of the Civil War.
Amma Bromley, a senior at Crawford College Preparatory School in St. Louis, said her Advanced Placement U.S. history class emphasized states’ rights more than enslavement as the cause of the war.
“The extent to how poorly Blacks were treated isn’t covered,” Bromley said. “That can have a profound impact on just reading those textbooks because when they read that slavery wasn’t that bad … they won’t be able to comprehend the continuation of slavery in modern society with redlining, mass incarceration and over-policing.”
Who sets the curriculum?
Why is social studies taught the way it is in Kansas and Missouri? While state laws have an impact, the two states direct local school districts to largely carry out their own social studies curriculum.
Education in Kansas and Missouri is focused on the district level, which means the standards are inconsistent across each state. However, some districts are moving toward a more inclusive approach when it comes to teaching U.S. history.
Don Gifford has taught in Kansas high schools for over 30 years and is the history and government consultant for the Kansas State Department of Education.
Kansas’ tradition of local control is based on the idea that local schools know their kids’ needs better, Gifford said. That’s why local school districts and boards have control of the curricula.
“We don’t (buy) as many textbooks as people in California and Texas would buy,” Gifford said. “So obviously, nobody is going to tailor their textbook to something that the people of Kansas or even Missouri would want.”
The subject requirements are similar between both states, but in Kansas, students are required to take a social studies course in state history and government to graduate high school.
Recently, U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation to influence how history is taught in education. In June, Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced the Saving American History Act, which would prevent primary and secondary schools from using federal funds to teach The 1619 Project. In 2019, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, which reframes American history by focusing on the existence of enslavement as the cornerstone of the formation of the country through narratives centering enslaved people. Schools that teach The 1619 Project would be ineligible for federal professional-development grants under Cotton’s legislation.
Earlier this year, Democratic Missouri state Rep. Tommie Pierson Jr. filed a resolution that would encourage public schools to celebrate Black History Month, integrate Black history perspectives in lesson plans and improve Black history education. Neither piece of legislation has passed.
‘Black history is rarely focused by itself’
There are typically three main areas of Black history that are taught in schools: Enslavement, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement. These areas are decontextualized and centered around when white people made contact with Black people, King said.
“Black history is rarely focused by itself,” King said. “It’s always focused on when white people notice these different people or this person broke into white society, so this person is historically important.”
When she lived in Lawrence, Mba remembers visiting local historical landmarks from the Civil War era with her school. She learned about Confederate leader William Quantrill and abolitionist John Brown, both of whom were white men, and their contrasting roles in the enslavement of Africans.
Even though the rising senior at Nevada High School learned about U.S. history through different frameworks, one common factor was prevalent: Neither centered around the experiences of enslaved people.
“When it came to learning about Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, even less familiar names, that’s not something that was taught unless you took the time out of your own day to learn,” Mba said of her Lawrence schooling.
Even with the exclusivity of how history is taught in schools, districts in Kansas and in Missouri are pushing for a change.
In spring 2019, the Olathe school district introduced a Black history course in two of its high schools after students suggested an interest in the subject. Initially, almost 60 students were enrolled. Now in the upcoming school year, the elective is offered in all five of its high schools with more than 500 students enrolled.
“They were excited to learn histories that they hadn’t learned so far,” said Tina Ellsworth, K-12 social studies coordinator for Olathe Public Schools.
“The fact that the numbers are going up the way that they are just is indicative that there’s a lot of interest throughout the system.”
‘We’re not looking for the watered-down version of history’
Textbooks have often been accused of whitewashing U.S. history. In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that popular textbooks “fail to provide comprehensive coverage of slavery and enslaved peoples.” With the research center’s own rubric to analyze the textbooks’ coverage of American slavery, it found that the average score was 46%.
Now, teachers are using alternative resources to provide a more comprehensive approach to history.
At Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, Missouri, social studies teacher Victor Bell is incorporating parts of The 1619 Project curriculum into his Advanced Placement U.S. history class this school year.
“Sometimes in history classes, we’re not looking for the watered-down version of history,” Bell said. “We’re trying to look at it, factually.”
He plans to introduce Socratic seminars and readings from the curriculum to his students. The Pulitzer Center created a curriculum based on the original work of The New York Times Magazine, which includes activities and other resources for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Jason Jones, a ninth grade U.S. history teacher from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, is trying something new with his curriculum: Starting his history class at the time of Reconstruction. Typically, U.S. history is broken up into two courses — the time from the colonial era to the end of Reconstruction, and then from the end of Reconstruction into modern times.
Jones jumped at the opportunity to change up his teaching and make Reconstruction a focal point.
“Reconstruction is a very underrated piece of explaining how we got to where we are,” Jones said.
He doesn’t check out individual textbooks to his students, but instead has been collecting resources throughout the years, including primary resources like the Jim Crow laws in various states and the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program.
“Having a proper understanding of slavery, which is heavily tied to the American identity, especially Black America,” said high school student Bromley, “… it’s unavoidable.”
Annie T.H. Le is a freelance reporter for The Beacon and a former reporting intern.