Teaching the Hard History of American Slavery from the Southern Poverty Law Center
Slavery is not simply an event in our history; it’s central to our history.
American enslavement of Africans shaped our country’s sociopolitical institutions and formed the cornerstone of our industrial revolution. Today the persistent disparities African Americans face — and the backlash that seems to follow every African-American advancement — trace their roots to slavery and its aftermath.
To understand the world today we must understand slavery. But SPLC research shows our schools are failing to teach the hard history of African enslavement.
We surveyed U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers, analyzed a selection of state content standards, and reviewed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. We found:
- High school seniors struggle on even the most basic questions about American enslavement of Africans.
- Teachers who are serious about teaching slavery struggle to provide deep coverage of the subject in the classroom.
- Popular textbooks fail to comprehensively cover slavery and enslaved peoples.
- State content standards are timid and fail to set appropriately high expectations.
Students at Middle School 118 told The New York Daily News that a social studies teacher picked three of the black students in her classroom and told them to lie on the floor to see “how it was to be a slave” for a lesson on the Middle Passage, where slaves were brought on ships to America.
“How does it feel?” she asked the students. When one girl made a joke and said she felt fine, the teacher reportedly stepped on her back.
“She put her foot on her back and said ‘How does it feel?’” the student said. “‘See how it feels to be a slave?’”
“While the investigation has not been completed, these are deeply disturbing allegations, and the alleged behavior has no place in our schools or in society.”Toya Holness, Education Department spokeswoman
Teachers can access free resources on teaching American slavery