Black History Beyond Black History Month


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Featured image: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Black History Month was celebrated throughout the United States last month, from the White House to classrooms across the country. In recent months, particularly following protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the summer of 2020, there has been increased demand for curriculum that represents Black Americans in schools.

In recent years, many state legislatures have sought to expand the amount of content available to all students on Black history and emphasize the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans in classroom instruction throughout the year. Since 2020, at least 57 bills have been introduced that seek to expand multicultural education; at least 25 specifically involve Black history. Florida, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington have all enacted legislation either expanding multicultural education generally or expanding Black history instruction.

Below, we present some trends and examples of legislative activity in this area: some states have attempted to create new requirements for Black history specifically, others have introduced bills that emphasize the importance of Black contributions in all disciplines and some have created commissions advocating for further action.

Black History Legislation

A number of states have introduced legislation this year specifically calling for the inclusion of Black history in school curriculum. Alabama introduced H.B. 7 earlier this year, which would require public K-12 schools to include a semester-long course in Black American history in their curriculum and would require the state board of education to adopt rules for its implementation and enforcement.

Maryland H.B. 11 would take a more targeted approach by specifying seven specific content standards. These standards include: “1) the history of African people before … slavery; 2) the contributions of African Americans to society; 3) slavery and abolition; 4) Jim Crow laws; 5) the 1921 Tulsa race massacre; 6) social injustice and police brutality; and 7) any additional topics determined to be relevant by the state board.”

Bills Beyond Curriculum

Some states have introduced legislation to incorporate curriculum that highlights and affirms the contributions of Black Americans beyond history classes. Minnesota H.F. 217 would require school boards to adopt education effectiveness plans that integrate curriculum that is rigorous, accurate, anti-racist and culturally sustaining. Anti-racist is defined as “the active process of identifying and eliminating racism” in a number of ways, and culturally sustaining is defined as “integrating content and practices that infuse the culture and language of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities who have been and continue to be harmed and erased through schooling.”

Oregon S.B. 617 would direct the state board of education to ensure that academic content standards for English classes include “meaningful instruction on literary contributions by African American authors,” as specified in middle and high school. This bill would also require textbook and instructional materials to adequately address contributions to the economic, political and social development of Oregon and the United States by Black Americans.

Legislative action in some states has taken the form of declarations and resolutions celebrating Black history, and some states have directed commissions to take on related responsibilities. California H.R. 12 would recognize the month of February as Black History Month and recognize the first week of February each year as Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.  New Jersey S. 1028 (enacted) declares that “public schools curricula have consistently omitted or misrepresented” Black history, and directs public schools via the Amistad Commission to expand instruction on the contributions and accomplishments of Black Americans.

Other states have taken action beyond passing formal legislation to draw attention to Black history in education. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order in 2019 establishing the Commission on African American History Education, which was charged with examining the state’s history standards and professional development practices to improve the way African American history is taught in schools. The commission’s final report was presented to the governor in August 2020 and provided four key recommendations for consideration.

As we move beyond Black History Month in the United States, Education Commission of the States will continue to track state efforts to expand instruction on the history and contributions of Black Americans. To view all enacted and vetoed bills, visit our interactive State Policy Tracking page and select “Curriculum” from the drop-down list.

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Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States |
Cassidy Francies is a former policy researcher at Education Commission of the States.
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Bryan Kelley is a former policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

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