On a Wednesday evening, a multi-generational group of folks gathered on the steps of Citadel of Life Cathedral in Inverness – teens, teachers, a school principal, who is also the church’s pastor, and her husband, also a teacher.
As they sat on the steps of the church, they talked about a range of topics surrounding Black history: stories from their grandparents, being called the N word, negative stereotyping, as well as being proud of their families’ rich legacies, about their hope for the future and for the very future of their history.
Months before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Jan. 23 press conference that AP African American Studies was “indoctrination” and “pushed an agenda,” Florida’s Stop WOKE Act had already brought aspects of America’s history – namely racism and the mistreatment of Black Americans solely because of the color of their skin – into the national conversation.
What should and should not be taught in public schools about Black history?
More importantly, why or why not?
This group of people on the church steps, this group of Black people, talked about the “why.”
“The problem is, we’re labeling it ‘Black history,’ but it’s American history,” said Shelia Wright. “It’s all intertwined … and the importance of knowing all of it, not just picking and choosing, is that some things we don’t ever want to go back to. But we have to know it first.”
Below are snippets from their conversation:
Tammy Langley, grew up in Inverness, the daughter of a church pastor. She’s now the pastor of the church her father served, Citadel of Life Cathedral in Inverness. She is also a school principal in Lake County.
“When we’re talking about our history, it’s important to tell the whole story, the good and the bad, all of it,” she said. “In school, you learn about slavery, but we’re more than slaves.
“There’s a concept of Black Americans that’s negative, so whenever you see one of us, there’s a threat of some type. But if people knew about our history and how we’ve contributed to the world, not just the arts and music, but science and politics, engineering, education, law, medicine – the brilliant minds our people have, then maybe the perception of us will change.
“And if the perception of us will change, then maybe we could actually unify in the world. But people have to be educated. Ignorance breeds hatred.”
“When we move into wealthier neighborhoods, we have to present ourselves,” said Brittny Sanders Solomon, a school teacher and a parent. “My son is 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, a Citrus High School football player. Because I don’t want someone to feel that his presence makes them feel uncomfortable, I knocked on doors, introduced myself and my family, let them know that my son is a football player, an honor student.
“I don’t think every race has to do that, but we feel obligated to. My husband likes to run, but he doesn’t run in our neighborhood. Others run all the time, but if he does and if it makes somebody uncomfortable and they call the police – if he wants to run, he goes to the park.
“We have to teach our children these guidelines to make sure they’re safe.”
“In school we were taught about slavery, about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Rosa Parks and that’s about all,” said John Langley. “We didn’t have access to computers or smartphones back then, no internet, but we did have a set of encyclopedias.
“Most of what we learned about our history we had to learn from our grandparents and our parents. They told us about the struggles, the fight our ancestors endured coming over here, what they had to go through, what they were promised and never got.”
At 17, Taireke Jordan (“TJ”) is a student at Citrus High School. He said, “We learn the same thing every year. Black history is slaves, the KKK and MLK.”
Craig Williams, a seventh-grade student at Citrus Springs Middle School, said he just wants to learn the truth.
“I’d like to see African American history and more history in general, more videos about it that are the truth,” he said.
“I’m a history teacher,” Shelia Wright said, “… and my experience is, any mention of Black history in the classroom was not well received, by students, parents and the administration. They don’t want to hear about it.”
She added, “I think what the governor is doing is going to push more people, especially in the Black community, to start learning more about history. Once you say, ‘You can’t,’ they’re going to do it. It’s called unintended consequences.”
“We found my great-grandfather’s slave papers,” Brittny Sanders Solomon said. “He and 10 other people put their money together to buy land. They were able to buy themselves out of slavery.
“Now my family owns the land. We researched the 10 other people and found some of the families and found out that he ended up buying them all out, so we really do own it.”
In 1977, the TV miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” aired on ABC over eight consecutive nights.
“I didn’t watch it and I won’t watch it,” said Tammy Langley. “It’s a lot.”
“I watched it several times,” John Langley said. “It was hard to watch. It made you angry. It made you not want to go to school the next day because you wanted to retaliate on someone.”
Brittny Sanders Solomon, who grew up in Sumter County, saw “Roots” in school.
“Afterwards, there was a big race fight,” she said. “They never showed it again. After that, the district made a rule to review videos before showing one.”
At 12, Craig Williams is tired of the N word and all it represents.
“Sometimes you can’t even go to the store without being accused of stealing or hurting somebody, when you’re just trying to buy yourself some milk and cookies,” he said.
La’Nya Solomon, 16, changed schools because she was tired of hearing the N word used freely with no consequences. She told her mother, “The cultural environment is messing with my studies.”
Now she attends Citrus High School where she said the atmosphere is completely different.
“It was hard for me as a parent to see her deal with that,” her mom said.
The first of the Historic Black Universities and Colleges (HBUC) was founded before the American Civil War to provide Black youths who were otherwise prevented from attending established colleges and universities, with a basic education and training, primarily to become teachers or tradesmen.
“We had 35 members of my family graduate from HBUCs,” said Brittny Sanders Solomon. “La’Nya’s father went to FAMU, so the education he got there about Black History he instilled in her, and I learned stories from him, too. It was a requirement that (students) had to learn and study about leaders throughout history, especially as it pertained to your major, and you had to show leadership and volunteer and give back to your community.
“That’s why a lot of people choose to attend Black colleges,” she said.
On Jan. 5, 1923, a mob of more than 200 white men attacked the Black community in Rosewood, Florida, in Levy County, killing more than 30 Black women, men, and children.
It’s not something that is usually talked about in the school classroom.
“I learned about Rosewood in the fourth grade, but not in school,” Shelia Wright said. “I watched a VHS movie about it and then a few years ago I watched a documentary about it.
“I went to FSU and had a professor who worked with lawyers to get money for the descendants of those people who were murdered at Rosewood. A lot of them moved to the Lacoochee area of Florida, so a lot of the grandchildren were able to get some form of reparations for that massacre.
“That’s not taught in school on a regular basis,” she said.
Tammy Langley said she didn’t learn about Rosewood until she was an adult, watching the same movie Shelia Wright had watched.
“We took our children to Rosewood, where it was, to show them, ‘This is where it happened.’ When our kids were younger, we took family vacations to historical places so they could see their Black history.”
TJ said when he hears the term “Black history” he thinks of change.
“Once Black people were slaves and thought of as lesser people and now there’s a whole month that’s dedicated to the accomplishments of Black people.”
In an essay La’Nya created for Black History Month, she wrote: “I believe Black History Month does not end on Feb. 28 and is celebrated 365 days a year. My father has a shirt that states: ‘I am Black History Month.’ This shirt reminds me that each day my significant contributions to my society and school can help me become a leader in Black History.”
She also wrote: “My family tree includes doctors, lawyers, teachers, correctional officers, nurses, bankers, college professors, authors and Procter & Gamble’s Sales Vice President for North American Hair Care.”
“We have to be the ones to continue it, to teach our kids and our grandkids, because it’s being taken out of everything,” John Langley said. “If we want a brighter future, then we have to get educated on our history.”
“If we want a safe future and not repeat some of the same atrocities of the past, we’re going to have to teach it to our kids,” Shelia Wright said. “Otherwise, we’re going to make the same mistakes over and over. … I firmly believe education is on the parents. … If I want my children to know something, I read the book first and then I give it to my children.
“Our job is to teach our children.”
Nancy Kennedy can be reached at 352-564-2927 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.