As DeSantis alters Black history in schools, critics say key chapters are lost

Only 11 of Florida’s 67 county school districts — including Hillsborough and Pinellas — are considered exemplary at meeting a mandate that African American history be taught.
In this 2004 photo, then-Florida state Rep. Ed Jennings hugs Rosewood survivor Robie Allenetta Mortin after the unveiling of a historical marker for Rosewood, a Black community destroyed by racial violence in 1923.
In this 2004 photo, then-Florida state Rep. Ed Jennings hugs Rosewood survivor Robie Allenetta Mortin after the unveiling of a historical marker for Rosewood, a Black community destroyed by racial violence in 1923. [ DOUG FINGER | AP ]
Published Feb. 6|Updated Feb. 10

TALLAHASSEE — For 71 years, the survivors of Rosewood controlled their history. They guardedly discussed their stories only at family gatherings, haunted by the threat of retaliation in their rural Central Florida communities.

But after the 1990 death of the last surviving witness, the families decided to speak up about the angry white mob that torched and destroyed the Black town in Levy County in 1923.

The painful details of the unpunished lynchings and vigilante violence went from being family secrets to the foundation for legislation awarding the first reparations paid by a state in the nation’s history to survivors of racial violence.

They also became the catalyst for the 1994 law requiring the teaching of Florida’s Black history in K-12 schools. The law requires that courses comprise five components: African beginnings, the passage to America, slavery, the Reconstruction period after the Civil War and the “contributions of African Americans to society.”

Now, as Gov. Ron DeSantis mounts a political attack on what he calls the “woke mob,” he claims that certain instruction of Black history is the equivalent of political indoctrination. And educators and advocates who pushed for the Black history standards say the governor’s policies are threatening to reverse the modest progress they have made.

As DeSantis defends against charges that he is “erasing the state’s Black history,” he cites the 1994 law as evidence that it is required to be taught, but he is confronted with contradictions:

  • Budget records show that the implementation of the law that has been on the books for nearly 28 years has been not only understaffed and barely enforced, but DeSantis and legislative leaders have rejected requests to beef up resources to expand the teaching of Black history in Florida.
  • Whether it’s OK to discuss reparations, which is central to the Rosewood saga that spawned the Black history law, is now an uncertainty in Florida classrooms because state officials have determined that the reparation movement, which involves offering financial restitution to the descendants of enslaved people for the harms of slavery and racial discrimination, is an attempt at “indoctrination.”

“We proudly require the teaching of African American history. We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education,” wrote education commissioner Manny Diaz on Twitter last month as he defended the Department of Education’s decision to reject the Advanced Placement course in African American Studies because it “lacked educational value.”

Few Florida counties have it in core curriculum

Although African American studies is considered part of the K-12 core curriculum, only 11 of Florida’s 67 county school districts — including Hillsborough and Pinellas — have developed a plan for providing the course, trained teachers and integrated instruction in their required coursework, according to the Education Commissioner’s Task Force on African American Studies.

The task force was created in 1995 to help implement the law by aiding school districts in developing material for teachers to use and assisting in training teachers to use it.

But most school districts limit instruction on the topic of African American history to lessons in February, Black History Month, said Bernadette Kelley-Brown, an associate professor of English at Florida A&M University and a task force member.

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And while the state’s current standards for fourth grade curriculum include a section on Florida history, there is no standard that requires that African American history be included, she said.

“The reason it has taken so long is the history is so brutal,” said Marvin Dunn, 82, a retired Navy officer and professor emeritus at Florida International University who has written books about Florida’s Black legacy. “It is so bloody, and it is so pervasive in Florida history, that confronting that terrible, disturbing history is difficult. It’s not just difficult for white people. It’s difficult for Black people, too.”

In his tours across the state, Dunn said about a third of the Black people he talked to, including descendants of people who had been lynched, didn’t want to talk about it.

“‘We lived through that,’ they would say. ‘We don’t want to go back through all of that. Let it die,’” Dunn said. “Part of that pushback has to do with the emotional gravitas of the history itself.”

Task force has a mission but limited resources

Jim Hargrett, a Tampa Democrat and Senate sponsor of the 1994 law, said there is a reason there were no consequences imposed if a district failed to offer the coursework beyond Black History Month.

“I had to make a key compromise to pass the bill out of the Senate,” Hargrett recalled recently. “A mandate to teach the course would have cost implications, and we were in one of those tight budget years where if a bill had a cost mandate, it wouldn’t be able to pass.”

“When I talk with teachers about why you are not providing the instruction, most of them say, ‘We just don’t have the content,’” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat and member of the task force.

For nearly 15 years, the nonpartisan task force, which is housed at Florida A&M University, has been given the same $100,000 annual budget and one staff member, she said.

“The task force was intended to help the commissioner of education develop the curriculum, lesson plans and information that could be sent out to all 67 counties,” she said. “But it is significantly understaffed and can’t do the job that it was designed to do.”

As a result, counties that offer the program have often developed their own curriculum, she said.

Thompson has repeatedly asked legislators for another $200,000 to increase staffing for outreach efforts but to no avail. School districts have asked for help to offer the robust curriculum offered by the 11 exemplary counties, but the agency lacks the resources.

“The effort to get Black history has been ongoing forever and has been resisted forever,” said Leon Russell, chairperson of the board of the Florida NAACP, which worked to get the history requirement added to Florida’s education standards.

Kelley-Brown, who serves as the principal investigator for the task force, said there are eight vacancies on the task force of 12 members and, although the Florida Department of Education has revised the criteria for who can sit on the board, the governor has not appointed any new members.

Lawmakers have repeatedly added new responsibilities for the task force to handle but not new funding.

Attempting to add Ocoee massacre to the curriculum

In 2020, Thompson and Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, succeeded in passing HB 1213 — the Educational Instruction of Historic Events. The bill added to the list of required K-12 instruction the story of the 1920 Election Day Massacre in Ocoee, when an angry Ku Klux Klan mob torched the town and killed 35 people.

Like Rosewood, the story was absent from history books. Legislators required that the task force provide recommendations for how to incorporate it into the K-12 curriculum.

Kelley-Brown said the task force provided recommendations for how to “teach Ocoee, not from a negative standpoint but from a learning standpoint.” Since then, the task force has heard nothing more, she said.

In 2021 and 2022, Thompson and Bracy persuaded the Legislature to include $1 million to produce a documentary film by Valencia College students that could be used in classrooms to tell the story. DeSantis vetoed the budget item twice, with no explanation.

Kelley-Brown said Black history is not taught in many teaching colleges, except at historically Black universities, and “people can’t teach what they don’t know.”

“Is there a concerted effort to suppress teaching of the African and African American experience?’’ she asked rhetorically. “The answer is yes.”

Reparations considered ‘indoctrination’

Another area of conflict between the state’s handling of its African American past and the governor’s statements about it involves the mention of reparations.

The Florida Department of Education cited the reparation movement as an attempt at “indoctrination” and said discussion of it was one of the reasons the state rejected the College Board’s AP course in African American Studies.

But in 1994, Florida made history when it set aside $2.1 million for Rosewood’s 11 known survivors — who were too young in January 1923 to bear witness to the events — and set up a scholarship to help their descendants receive college educations.

Their ancestors had risen out of slavery to own property, run a turpentine factory and live comfortably — until January 1923. Throngs of angry white people rampaged through the town in search of an unidentified Black man who had allegedly attacked a white woman in nearby Sumner.

In the course of one week, the bustling town was reduced to ashes. The only thing that stands today is a sign erected to commemorate Rosewood. It is riddled by bullets.

Related: Florida’s Rosewood Massacre: 100 years later, the story continues

A team of scholars was tasked with researching the history of the town, and determining the state’s role in the massacre. They concluded the state failed to protect Rosewood from the racially motivated attacks. A claim bill was filed and lawmakers agreed to a settlement.

Today, if the story of Rosewood is told in Florida classrooms, speaking of the reparations movement may come with some risk. DeSantis and Diaz have asserted, without providing examples, that some teachers have inserted political beliefs into lessons related to race.

“The ‘woke class’ wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools,” DeSantis told the Florida Board of Education at a meeting last summer.

When DeSantis signed into law the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, or Stop Woke Act, last year, he said he wanted to fight back against what he considered racial “indoctrination” in academia and corporate America. The law says that lessons on race in K-12 classrooms must be taught in “an objective manner,” must not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view and may not make students uncomfortable.

Advocates now worry that the new law and the decision by the Florida Department of Education to reject the AP African American Studies course offered by the College Board is having a chilling effect on the teaching of Black history.

Related: DeSantis says AP African American history class pushes political agenda

Teachers proceed with caution

Instructors must tread carefully that they don’t leave any student feeling “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” or the law allows a teacher to be charged with a third-degree felony, Thompson said.

A new law allows a teacher found in violation to be subject to sanctions, such as losing their certification, said Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, in responding to questions after this story was originally published. He denied allegations by Thompson and other critics that the uncertainty around what is allowed to be discussed leaves teachers vulnerable to being charged with a felony.

“There are no criminal penalties related to the law that [Thompson cites],” he said. He said the potential for criminal penalties is based on a law that prohibits anyone from distributing “explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct” to children.

Opponents of the new law say some teachers may worry that any books with sexual content, including violence against Blacks involving rape and other sex crimes, may be considered sexually explicit material subject to criminal penalties.

“There’s a lack of clarity, and teachers are concerned about what they can teach,” Thompson said. “They’re walking on eggshells right now.”

In Duval County, school administrators removed 26 books from elementary school shelves, including “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” and “Climbing Lincoln’s Steps: The African American Journey,” while a committee decides whether they meet the standards of the new state law.

“DeSantis has touched a live wire in the American soul,” Dunn said. “Most people — Black or white, liberal or conservative — don’t want to tell professors what they can teach.”

He has begun offering “Teach the Truth” tours in which high school students and their parents visit the sites of some of the worst racial violence in Florida history, and he has written a book, “A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes,” that he says would not be allowed in Florida classrooms now because teachers would fear they could be prosecuted if students felt uncomfortable.

“You can’t just brush off babies being snatched from the breasts of enslaved women and sold off, never to be seen again,” he said. “I don’t know how to teach that without telling students that I think that was evil.”

In his 40 years of teaching psychology and history, he said he “never heard a teacher tell a student how to feel.”

Gary Mormino, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Florida, has written two books on Florida history. “Many people are uncomfortable today,” he said, and “that’s one of the things DeSantis is trying to remove. He doesn’t want any student to be uncomfortable — except African Americans, of course.”

Dunn said his frustration with DeSantis and the Department of Education’s approach to teaching Black history is that avoiding difficult discussions has become a political tool for the governor to appeal to a segment of his base that responds to fear.

For example, he said, DeSantis suggested that including in the AP course any discussion of Queer Theory, a field of study that examines the nature of sexuality and attitudes about gender, was evidence of what the governor said was “somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.”

Dunn said that if he were creating the curriculum for the AP course, he would include queer and gender studies because “it is an important aspect of African American history.”

“There’s more anti-gay feelings among Black people in this country than among any other racial group,” he explained.

By suggesting that addressing the topic is the equivalent to advocating for it, DeSantis has “perverted that into scaring white people that homosexuals are coming after your children to groom them to become gay,” Dunn said.

He’s ‘wakened us’

Thompson, Dunn, Hargrett and Russell now say there may be a silver lining to what they see as the governor’s attempts to minimize and distort Black history.

“It’s had an unintended consequence,” said Russell, the board chairperson of the NAACP of Florida.

“He’s ‘wakened’ us,” he said, referring to DeSantis. The NAACP is working with Black pastors from around the state to promote a rally Wednesday in Tallahassee with civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and, in the future, he expects groups from sororities and fraternities to churches and civic clubs to start teaching Black history.

Thompson said she hopes that the visibility of the issue will encourage people to push the governor and Department of Education to develop a uniform curriculum “that is guided by the academicians and the historians and researchers in Florida and pushed out to all 67 counties.”

And for Mormino, the USF historian, Florida’s debate over the future of Black history in schools can be summed up by a quote from George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984″:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Clarification: This story was updated on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, to clarify the year of death of the last witness to the events of January 1923, to clarify references to reparations in the classroom and to include comments by Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education.