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Florida officials say new African American History standards reflect the good, bad and ugly

Black Lives Matter fist on the 'A' of the word 'Salute' painted in the parking lot of the Law Offices of Anabelle Dias.
Anna Jones
WFSU Public Media
Black Lives Matter fist on the 'A' of the word 'Salute' painted in the parking lot of the Law Offices of Anabelle Dias.

Florida has adopted new African American History and Social Students standards that officials say proves recent criticism, wrong. Still, the adoption of the new language isn’t assuaging concerns that the state is watering down African American history, and disagreement remains over what should and shouldn’t be included.

African American History is American History," Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz stated at the outset of the meeting. He repeated a refrain often levelled by critics that the state has been trying to eliminate, water down and whitewash difficult conversations around race, history and culture.

Diaz, speaking for the Department, argues the new standards do none of that, and confront often difficult conversations around historical events head on.

“Nothing was removed. We continue to say It’s the good, bad and ugly in American History," he said while praising the new teaching standards as thorough, and inclusive.

READ MORE: Effort to protect abandoned African American cemeteries stalled last year; things are different now

Among the topics covered: President Barack Obama, the racially-driven Ocoee and Rosewood Massacres, the role of black fraternities and sororities, and civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Council. Noted Floridians, historical and recent, like athlete and Florida A&M University alumn “Bullet” Bob Hayes, and fellow FAMU alumnus and filmmaker Will Parker sit alongside famous educator Mary McCloud Bethune who founded Bethune Cookman University.

The standards also discuss the role of African nations in helping facilitate the slave trade.

Where the state applauds its efforts as in depth and inclusive, many teachers, and political watchers argue the standards aren’t deep enough. Elementary schoolers through 4th grade are only required to identify prominent African Americans.

“These are the lowest level of cognitive rigor. The standard do not build on each other nor do they become more complex as students move through each grade level in the same way that the civics, American History, geography, economics standards do in our elementary schools," said Volusia County elementary school teacher Elizabeth Albret, a member of the local teachers union.

The League of Women Voters of Florida’s Stephanie Vanos described other language in the standards as insulting—like this section which references the Ocoee Massacre. It's framed as a clarification to the overall standard:

"Clarification 2: Instruction 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."
Vanos said that language "suggests violence by Black residents in defense of their lives and homes…should be included as a seemingly equal part of the standard.”  

Another much maligned clarification in the standards states “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, sayid she's concerned with that wording.

“The notion that enslaved people benefited from being enslaved—is inaccurate and a scary standard for us to establish in our education curriculum.”    

The Florida Department of Education’s Paul Burns is defending his team’s work.

After sitting through nearly an hour of minor outbursts, some jeers and heavy criticism, Burns spoke up, saying, "I just want to be clear that our standards do not teach that slavery was beneficial. Our standards are factual, objective standards that really teach the good, the bad and the ugly."

The updates come in response to 2022's "STOP WOKE ACT" which placed restrictions on how aspects of race, culture and history could be taught and discussed in public schools.

Copyright 2023 WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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