The Lakeland branch of the NAACP is hosting a six-part series on African-American history, led by Bobbie Boatwright Harris, emeritus history professor at Hillsborough Community College. The monthly sessions begin Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Coleman-Bush Building.
The program, “Black Experience in U.S. History,” is part of a statewide effort by Black organizations and churches throughout Florida to educate communities about a history that they fear either isn’t being taught or is being watered down.
“Black Experience in U.S. History” begins Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. at the Coleman-Bush Building,1104 Martin Luthern King Jr. Ave. The program is open to all, is free, and runs once a month through February. The dates are: Sept. 12, Oct. 17, Nov. 14, Dec. 12, Jan. 9, and Feb. 13.
“The study of Black Americans is an important basic study of United States history,” Harris said.
Harris, 76, was born in rural Marion County, S.C., the daughter of sharecropping parents. They moved to New Jersey when she was 9 years old during the “great migration” of southern Black residents to northern states to find work and better-paying jobs.
Harris received a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers-New Brunswick in labor studies, a master’s degree in U.S. history, with a concentration in 19th Century African-American Women from Monmouth University and did doctorate work, focused on African-American women and sharecropping, at Rutgers.
She completed all but her dissertation. She taught world history at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J., European history at Monmouth University in Long Branch, N.J., and American and European history at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City campus. When she retired, was named professor emeritus of history.
Harris laments that the contributions of African-Americans are not generally taught in schools.
“I taught early and modern American history and the themes for slaves or freedmen were limited to laws passed to govern the movements of slaves, like the Fugitive Slave Act, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Black Codes,” she said. “These are just some of the limits.”
Terry Coney, president of the Lakeland Branch NAACP, said teaching the course is a way to push back on anti-diversity, equity and inclusion laws and regulations that are being handed down from Tallahassee.
“It’s to take away the conception that the only way our people can learn history is through the school system,” Coney said. “We have enough intelligent people where we can teach it ourselves.”
He said the course is open to all members of the public, but he particularly hopes it is attended by Black residents, ages 15-30.
“As African-Americans, we can step forward and be proactive and get our history out there and get it to our young people and not be dependent on our school system to get that information out,” he said.
He pointed to Herman Jenkins, a World War II veteran who recently died at the age of 104. “Very few African-Americans knew his story or knew he existed or knew African-Americans were part of the Normandy invasion on D-Day,” Coney said.
Harris said people who want to ignore America’s Black history, the good and the bad parts of it, “risk not understanding the rich diversity and talent in this country. Imagine if all citizens took even a brief study of Black Americans, including the slave trade, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, as well as the rich community spirit that exists among Africans Americans, this would go a long way in building the ‘one nation’ that the founders spoke of.”
The statewide effort to teach African American history in churches and community centers comes in the wake of several moves by politicians in Tallahassee to change what is being taught.
Gov. Ron DeSantis purged the state of Advanced Placement African-American History classes in Florida high schools in January, relenting only when The College Board sanitized its offering. Students can earn college credit for AP courses.
The Florida Department of Education added a Sunshine State Standard that requires teachers, if they choose to teach that particular standard, to “examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation) … Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
The Florida Legislature’s HB7 Bill, passed in 2022, prohibits, among other things, “classroom instruction and curricula from being used to indoctrinate or persuade students in a manner inconsistent with certain principles or state academic standards.” It also prohibits teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
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