History lesson: Local educators help expand Virginia’s African American history curriculum

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins is among those appointed to the Commission on African American History Education. Photo by Eze Amos Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins is among those appointed to the Commission on African American History Education. Photo by Eze Amos

Community leaders gathered at the University of Virginia October 28 for the first meeting of the Commission on African American History Education.

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins is among those appointed to the commission, which was established by Governor Ralph Northam. The purpose, says Atkins, is “to recognize that the African American experience and contributions to the development of our country are significant and have not been fully told. [We want] to fill in those areas in which African American history has not been taught.”

The commission will review Virginia’s history standards and practices and make recommendations for enriched standards related to African American history. The group will also offer recommendations on what support is needed to ensure cultural competency among teachers.

Northam established the commission by executive order on August 24 during a ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in North America at Point Comfort in 1619.

“The important work of this commission will help ensure that Virginia’s standards of learning are inclusive of African-American history and allow students to engage deeply, drawing connections between historic racial inequities and their continuous influence on our communities today,”  Northam said in a press release.

Charlottesville City Schools came under fire last year for a New York Times/ProPublica piece highlighting longstanding racial inequities in city schools. Atkins says such disparities exist throughout the commonwealth, and that telling the story of African American history could be empowering for black students.

“Once our students, teachers, and community have truthful information about who African Americans are in our country and their role, it gives a degree of value to African American people and the experiences they have had, and it empowers them to look forward to the future and do more in our country,” says Atkins.

An enriched curriculum, she says, will help “all of our students to know the beauty—and the ugliness—of our country and of our commonwealth…and to appreciate the diversity of contributions to who we are today.”

Northam has appointed 34 people to the commission, including historians, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders from across the commonwealth. Also representing Charlottesville is Dr. Derrick P. Alridge, a professor of education and director of the Center for Race and Public Education in the South at UVA’s Curry School of Education. Members serve without compensation.

The commission will meet at least quarterly over the next year and publish a report with its findings and recommendations by July 1, 2020.

Atkins recognizes that adding more African American history to the Virginia curriculum is not an end-all-be-all.

“There are other cultures and other groups of people who have not been included in the Virginia history…and that have to be included,” says Atkins. “This is just one part of that hole.”

The commission’s next meeting will be held on December 16 in Farmville.

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