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Black History You Probably Won't Be Taught in States That Ban Critical Race Theory

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Since the unprecedented anti-racism and anti-police brutality demonstrations in 2020, far-right politicians have responded by proposing bills and enacting laws that limit conversations and teaching of race in public schools. The strategic deterioration of the term “critical race theory” by political pundits like Christopher Rufo has had a ripple effect on how race and history are discussed throughout the country. As of January 2024, 18 states have bans against teaching critical race theory while nine states currently have bills or school policies prohibiting CRT teaching going through the legislative process.

The semantic shift around the legal framework has caused CRT to become a negative umbrella term, in some cases, for most topics that involve race. With most anti-CRT laws written ambiguously, it can be difficult for teachers in places where this subject is banned to decipher which topics and concepts they’re permitted to teach and which could cost them their jobs. For Black History Month in particular, this creates a new set of challenges: Historical events like the Civil Rights Movement may be taught, but in places where these bans exist, those lessons will likely lack the much-needed context of systemic racism, and how it translates to today.

In honor of Black History Month, here’s the context around five topics or events that you likely won’t be taught in anti-CRT states.

The Clotilda Ship and Africatown Community (1860)

Over 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, slaveholder Timothy Meaher placed a bet that he could successfully transfer West Africans to the Alabama Gulf Coast. And, he did. The ship arrived in Alabama in 1860, before Meaher ordered it sunk to destroy evidence of his crime. When emancipation reached them after the end of the Civil War, 32 survivors of the 110 Africans captured on the Clotilda ship by Captain William Foster went on to establish Africatown after their attempts to return home to Africa failed due to lack of resources.

Despite their plight, the group built their own community, opening churches, the Mobile County Training School, and businesses on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama. After thriving at first, Africatown’s existence was in jeopardy at the start of the 20th century. Industry expanded on the Alabama Gulf Coast, yet Africatown still had no access to the amenities predominantly white areas enjoyed: electricity, plumbing and even clean water. These unsuitable living conditions became a public safety threat and community members died from diseases like malaria and pneumonia. Only after the health of Black residents posed a threat to white Mobile residents did the city extend more modern amenities to Black neighborhoods. Environmental racism still impacts the Africatown community as paper and petrochemical plants pollute the air, land, and water.

Today members of the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association along with grassroots organizers of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition and Africatown C.H.E.S.S continue the legacy of environmental activism, a decades-long fight largely led by Black and indigenous people to eradicate environmental racism.

Mistreatment of Black Union Soldiers during and post-Civil War (1861-1865)

Despite what Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley says, the United States Civil War was largely about the rights of individuals to own slaves. While that is a fact you’d likely learn in elementary school, you may not hear about the treatment of Black Union soldiers during and post-war.

When the war began in 1861, Black men couldn’t enlist due to a 1792 federal law. As death tolls continued to climb and more and more slaves escaped Confederate states, slavery was officially abolished for all territories in 1863. The second confiscation and militia act were then passed, allowing Black men to enlist. Black enlistment skyrocketed while white enlistment decreased. Despite their service, Black soldiers as well as Black men and women who served in non-combat roles still faced discrimination during the war. Segregated units and wage disparities plagued Black troops as they were paid just over half of what white troops made monthly (Black soldiers were granted retroactive equal pay in 1864). Black Union soldiers captured by the Confederacy also faced more severe treatment as prisoners of war in comparison to their white counterparts.

Black veterans continuously faced discrimination as a new era of lynchings and harassment ensued post-Civil War during the Reconstruction Era. Though they left the battlefields, soldiers returned home to angry white mobs, being disarmed and disbanded and in some extreme circumstances publicly lynched.

Claudette Colvin (1955)

One of the most notable figures in Black history is Rosa Parks. Her refusal to move to the back of the city bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and her arrest are often credited as major catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. But just nine months before Parks’ actions, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same thing, laying the foundation for the Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued months later.

So why isn’t Colvin’s name mentioned as often as Parks’ when discussing Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement? Colvin told The Guardian in a 2021 interview that she believes her complexion (which was darker than Parks’), age, gender, and pregnancy before marriage were contributing factors in her being ostracized by local leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Colvin, who knew Parks personally and was invited to her house on several occasions following her arrest, believed that Parks’ appearance made her more palatable as one of the faces of the movement and more appealing to white people. It’s not often that colorism is discussed or taught in schools, particularly in regard to the Civil Rights Movement. Colvin’s erasure from the movement perfectly exemplifies the persistence of colorism even in the midst of one of the largest campaigns for Black liberation.

Bayard Rustin (1956)

Like Colvin, Bayard Rustin and his influence on the Civil Rights Movement is likely omitted from history lessons in anti-CRT states. Rustin’s multi-marginalized identity as a gay Black man often leaves him forgotten. Yet, his life-long commitment to nonviolence as a pacifist Quaker who studied Gandhi’s beliefs on nonviolence directly influenced Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.

In 1956 Rustin spoke to King in his home about his philosophy on nonviolent protests and soon became a key advisor to him. The next year Rustin helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Though Rustin chose to take a more backseat approach in some instances like refusing to have his name credited in King’s memoir Side Toward Freedom, (that he majorly helped draft) King never succumbed to the pressure to ostracize Rustin from the movement because of his sexuality. One of Rustin’s biggest feats was organizing the March on Washington in less than two months, which drew a crowd of over 200,000 people. Rustin’s legacy is that of many organizers who are less front-facing yet crucial to the success of movements.

MOVE Bombing in Philadelphia (1985)

One of the most notable race massacres in 20th-century American history is the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that left hundreds dead and destroyed the booming Black community of commerce affectionately known as Black Wall Street. Yet, even in schools that don’t have CRT bans, you’d likely not learn about the bombing of the Black organization MOVE in Philadelphia, which happened more than 60 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The obscurity of the massacre may in part be due to the cult-like nature of the organization. Founded by Vincent Leaphart (who went by John Africa), MOVE was against science and technology and promoted a “natural” lifestyle for its members. Children in the organization didn’t attend school or eat cooked meals. Seven years prior to the bombing, the organization had a standoff with police that left one officer dead and over a dozen more injured. On May 13, 1985 police served warrants to four members at the MOVE townhouse, giving them 15 minutes to surrender. A shootout between the members and police ensued and eventually under the direction of Mayor Wilson Goode, the Philadelphia Police Department bombed the home, which ignited a gasoline tank that police and firefighters allowed to burn for over six hours. The bombing killed 11 people, five of whom were children and destroyed 61 houses in the neighborhood, leaving survivors and the community traumatized.


Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue