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Florida Black churches vow to teach ‘our own history’


A rebuke to ‘watered down’ Black history study

By Kristina Dixon | Across Black America

Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Pierce, Fla. is among the more than 200 mostly Black churches in that state taking steps to teach Black history in part because of what faith leaders call the restricted and “watered-down’’ versions schools must teach under the state’s new policies. Instead, pastors equipped with a new Black history toolkit are teaching unfiltered lessons during Sunday school, Bible Study or as part of sermons.

Faith in Florida, a coalition of churches advocating for social justice causes, created the online toolkit, which includes books, documentaries and videos related to Black history. The project, launched in July, aims to push back against state efforts to regulate Black history lessons. Florida is one of several states where mostly conservative lawmakers are leading movements to restrict some teachings of Black history.

“We have a responsibility as a whole to make sure our history is not erased or watered down and that it be told,’’ said Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida. “It happened. It’s history.’’

This is not a new role for Black churches, which have long filled education gaps in their communities, historians said. But many said these lessons are needed now as much as ever.

“It’s not farfetched to think that a (Black) church is going to be able to provide educational opportunities where they see public institutions failing,’’ Howard Robinson, a historian at Alabama State University in Montgomery, said.

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has led efforts across the state to embrace policies that restrict how certain topics, including race, sexuality and gender, are taught in schools and colleges.

Earlier in the year, DeSantis signed legislation that banned the use of state funds to support diversity and inclusion programs at public universities. “This has basically been used as a veneer to impose an ideological agenda and that is wrong,” he said in May.

Florida also banned the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course. Advanced placement studies are college-level courses taught to high school students who can often earn college credit. State officials have said African American history is already taught in schools. They’ve said some of the course material violates state law and take issue with the inclusion of lessons on the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, Black feminism and reparations.

In July, the state Board of Education adopted social studies standards for teaching African American history to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Supporters said the standards include factual information, but critics argue the standards omit important parts of history, including the state’s role in slavery and the disenfranchisement of Black people and violent attacks against them. Civil rights and faith leaders also criticized language that said slaves developed skills that could be used for their personal benefit.

DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024, has defended the curriculum.

“They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” he said in July.

The Rev. Gaston Smith, pastor of a second Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, this one in Miami,  said he was offended by DeSantis’ remarks. “If anybody benefited from slavery, America benefited from slavery,” he said.

Smith and other pastors said they’re using the toolkit as a guide to map out lesson plans.