Governor Ralph Northam announced Thursday a new elective course for Virginia high school students on African American history.
The course will be offered in 16 Virginia school divisions during the 2020-2021 academic year, including Henrico and Prince William counties, Charlottesville and Norfolk, among others.
“Black history is American history, but for too long, the story we have told was insufficient and inadequate,” said Gov. Northam in the release announcing the new course. “The introduction of this groundbreaking course is a first step toward our shared goal of ensuring all Virginia students have a fuller, more accurate understanding of our history, and can draw important connections from those past events to our present day.”
At the beginning of 2019, Northam was marred in controversy over a photograph from his page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, which shows two men posing one dressed in blackface and another in Klu Klux Klan (KKK) hooded robes.
After the yearbook photo made national headlines and calls for Northam’s resignation were made from multiple parties, including the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the Governor said that he was pictured but did not specify if he was the man in blackface or KKK garments.
While there was already African American history curriculum, Northam felt that more should be done and the history standards were not adequate, Charles Pyle, director of media relations for the state’s department of education, told The Virginia Star.
Carol Swain, a Virginia native and former professor of political science Vanderbilt University, said that she would have concerns for the course if the material used was presenting American history in a biased, inaccurate way.
Swain specifically mentioned historian Howard Zinn, known for his book A People’s History of the United States, and the 1619 project, which asserts that 1619 should be the date considered as the start of the nation’s story.
“Given what Governor Northam has done in the past, I wouldn’t expect that he would suddenly be in favor of an unbiased portrait of virginia history,” Swain said in an interview with The Star. “If you do look at Virginia history and you were to present it in a straightforward way, it would be the story of the Democratic party suppressing blacks from the Byrd Machine through Northam and it would not be very flattering of the Democrats.”
The curriculum for the elective was developed by Virginia Department of Education specialists who also suggested content for to be studied, according to the release.
The class will survey African American history from precolonial Africa through today and covers key concepts in African American history, from early beginnings in Africa through the transatlantic slave trade, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights era and to the present, according to the release.
Additionally, the course comes with a capstone project requiring students to come up with a related question or problem and conduct their own research, according to the release.
Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said: “We can expect young Virginians to understand the enduring impacts of systemic racism only when they fully understand both the oppression experienced by African Americans and their significant contributions to STEM, the arts, education, law, and advocacy.”
About 20 teachers in the various districts will be teaching the course this year, Pyle said.
It is unclear if students who are homeschooled, which has grown more popular because of the impact COVID-19 has had on schools, will have access to this course or similar courses. The Star contacted several homeschool organizations, but did not get a response by time of publication.
Richmond public schools has already been offering this course since 2015 and announced earlier this month a new history elective called Real Richmond, according to Danielle Pierce, the Richmond public schools’ media relation specialist.
The elective will reportedly highlight the often untold history of marginalized groups and minorities in the city of Richmond with topics ranging from the 95 highway system construction to the history of the Jackson Ward neighborhood, according to VPM News.
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