Suspicions follow delay of Florida Black history conference

A state task force has been remade with members more closely aligned with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In April 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the "Stop woke" bill, in Hialeah Gardens.
In April 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the "Stop woke" bill, in Hialeah Gardens. [ DANIEL A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]
Published June 9|Updated June 16

Simmering mistrust over how Florida teaches Black history spiked this week among some of the educators who have long advocated for the lessons.

The concerns arose over the postponement of a two-day summer seminar aimed at helping teachers infuse the material into everyday classes. It’s an issue that might seem minor to many Floridians, but it’s big in a community suspicious of a government that in 2022 passed legislation (HB 7) stating that the lessons must not create discomfort for students.

“Teaching authentic history, some of it was very shameful and people feel shame about it,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, an emeritus member of the education commissioner’s African American History Task Force. “We can’t celebrate our triumphs without admitting the trials that we’ve been through.”

The task force has conducted the summer institute for several years, and it had more than 300 people registered to attend this month. One week before its start, though, education commissioner Manny Diaz named six new members to the 11-person panel.

The new majority included several Floridians, all Black, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis has named to other posts. Among them are state Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, and former Pinellas School Board member Glen Gilzean, who recently took over the newly revamped Disney improvement district. Neither could be reached for comment.

The new task force members’ first order of business was to call for delaying the summer institute, suggesting it should take place after the State Board of Education adopts new African American history standards. The standards are out for public comment, and slated for consideration on July 19.

Thompson said Friday that the proposed standards reflect the direction of HB 7, which Diaz sponsored, and raise fears among teachers that if they go beyond the standards, they could face penalties.

During a 100-minute meeting Wednesday, Jacques said it would be “prudent” to know what the final standards say, and to incorporate them into the institute “so there’s not mixed messages going into the school year.” Other new members shared that view, suggesting that in waiting, the state could ensure that “truthful African American history” could be disseminated.

Waiting also would give a space for the state to “correct misinformation put out by the media that the governor and Department of Education are somehow stifling the teaching of African American history and that teachers are suppressed,” said new member Frances Presley Rice, a co-founder of the Yocum African American History Association and chairperson of the National Black Republican Association.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The more long-serving task force members took offense at the move. They noted that their new colleagues neither looked at the institute agenda, nor raised any specific reason for a delay other than to say new standards are coming.

Member Tracy Oliver of Duval County schools said during the meeting that given the climate and culture toward Black history emanating from Tallahassee, “it seems suspicious.”

In addition to rewriting the standards and adopting HB 7, the state under DeSantis has led a national movement to excise critical race theory from schools and refused to adopt a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, saying it lacked educational value.

Former University of South Florida administrator and educator Samuel Wright, the task force vice chairperson, later deemed the way things occurred this week an embarrassment.

“It was an insult to those of us who have been involved with the institute for all these years,” Wright said Friday.

He called the new majority a group of DeSantis “cronies” and accused them of coming in with a prepared agenda — something they denied during the meeting.

“We need to tell the truth about what’s happening here,” Wright said, adding that he decided to quit the task force. “I’ll push from the outside. But I’m not going to partake in that kind of ignorance.”

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.