For years, Florida counties have failed to uphold a state statute mandating that public schools teach African American history in public schools and face little to no consequences for doing so; a local task force aims to change that by holding Alachua County accountable. 

 

Illustration by Joseph Garland

 

Alachua County has been fighting to infuse African American history throughout the public school system for over 25 years, resisting a system in which only 10 out of 67 Florida counties have successfully implemented a school curriculum that thoroughly teaches African American History.

The Alachua County Black History Task Force is a local advocacy and grassroots movement started in October 2013 that has spearheaded this cause. It is the most recent in a long string of groups that have aimed to hold individual counties accountable for implementing the Florida Statute 1003.42, a state ordinance mandating the teaching of African American history in public schools. The group also holds meetings and events at the downtown Sweetwater Branch Library to educate the public about African American history.

Though the statute is a state requirement, counties face little to no repercussion for not following it. This is because though the mandate passed in the ‘80s, a resolution giving the School Board power to hold individual counties accountable has never been made. Instead, the law exists only as a suggestion for how things should be.

“It can be in the books; it can be in the Florida statutes and look pretty” said Kali Blount, one of the leaders of the task force and a Gainesville human rights activist. “That’s what I call a ‘showcase law.’”

If the law does not have a resolution in the State Code of Administration, he said, then the statute is only as effective as a county wants it to be. Usually only the counties with the political will or with enough community support are the ones that implement the law. A resolution in the code of administration tells every person with authority to carry out the law what they must do, when they must do it, when there will be an evaluation and how it will be measured.

“And most of all,” Blount said, “What’s going to happen if you don’t do it.”

If the law does not have a resolution in the State Code of Administration, he said, then the statute is only as effective as a county wants it to be. 

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a women’s studies professor at the University of Florida and active member of the task force, said that the group has struggled to implement the mandate in a way that doesn’t simply include Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or other well-known figures, but also how African Americans have been involved since 1619 in all aspects of developing our society and country.

Various efforts have been made in participation with the school board superintendent to educate teachers around the county, to discuss curriculums and to make sure all texts meet the criteria of the mandate.

“We want to see this embedded not only in social studies, but in everything,” Simmons said, “Black history is American history, and it deserves to be integrated.”

While there is also a statewide task force headquartered in Tallahassee that focuses on maintaining the cause, Simmons said that one of the biggest problems has been the lack of money to enforce the ordinance. With Republicans at the helm, Simmons said it’s amazing that the group gets any money at all.

“It’s a real struggle because I think it’s basically white supremacy,” Simmons said. “And there’s been a pushback, they’re coming at us from all directions – from trying to put women back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, to subtly limiting our voting rights.”

Back in 1993, when the statute was revised to include topics that garnered more public support — including women’s rights and Hispanic contributions to the U.S. — the task force at the time, called the African Studies Association of Alachua County, petitioned the school board with over 700 signatures asking them to reinforce the statute.

In response, the board gave the group $25,000 to create a multicultural curriculum task force that included several teachers and community members. The money went to buying books and giving grants to teachers, but it only ended up helping four classrooms for one year.

Because of this, and the fact that they put someone without board authority — whose desk was already overflowing, Blount said — as head of the task force, this all seemed like a form of appeasement.

“If they’d been real back then, a member of the board would have chaired that committee,” he said. “If you’re talking about something that’s going to do vast, sweeping curriculum change, you would have somebody from the top of the system.”

Blount said that for him, the hardest part has not been the resistance of the school board and Good-Old-Boys Southern culture, but the resistance from the black community itself.

“In other words,” he said, “failure within the black community to be aware of the amount of history that was gone and what its importance is.”

Africans were brought here stripped of their culture, robbed of their names, food, clothing, religion, music — essentially everything familiar — and have struggled to develop an identity ever since, Blount said.

Because of this, and the fact that they put someone without board authority — whose desk was already overflowing, Blount said — as head of the task force, this all seemed like a form of appeasement.

“Black people were acculturated,” he said. “This was done to make self-determining humans into the stock and farm machinery of someone else’s prosperity.”

This meant treating other human beings in a way that seemed at odds with ordinary ethics, and it meant classifying African people as less than fully human in order to suit an economic need.

“Mass incarceration is a problem, and police brutality is a problem. The first thing that Rick Scott did was to forbid convicted felons from voting,” Simmons said. “Well, when you have mass incarceration of black and brown people, that’s a large percentage of the population that can’t vote.”

But even in post-segregation America, Southern states are not the only ones ignoring the significance of immersing black history studies into the public education system.

“It’s not just Florida; it’s the whole country,” Simmons said. “From what I can gather, it seems to be a big problem everywhere – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Chicago. I’ve seen a real retrenchment on the progressive agenda.”

Blount and the task force mean to make people conscious, at an individual and collective level, that white men are not the only contributors to our history.

“History is a rolling creature, it’s cause and effect, it all ties together, and we need to learn that,” Blount said.

If we pull black history out of history itself, a significant piece of the puzzle is missing to understand why the insanity that is racism continues to exist today, Blount said. The purest way out of this self-destructive quandary is through education.

The government will only change its ways if the people demand change, and it needs to start at a local level. We need to understand ourselves as part of an organism, and not as a separate individual entity if we want to begin constructing a just world.

“When you can get 60 million black folks in America moving together, that’s more powerful than anything that could affect this country,” Blount said.