Current and former elected officials join the push for a mandatory African American history course

Reece Johnson holds a sign that reads “Mandatory AA Class Now” during the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, June 25.

Current and former elected officials join the push for a mandatory African American history course
July 03
00:15 2019

“Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it.”

That was the quote Reece Johnson used when he addressed the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education last week. The aphorism from Spanish philosopher George Santayana was the perfect intro to Johnson’s two-minute address to the board on why they should adopt a mandatory African American history course.

The push for a mandatory African American history course began more than three years ago when the Local Organizing Committee (L.O.C.), took their demands to the local school board.

According to organizers with the L.O.C., after initial talks with district administrators to discuss the idea of an African American history course, they never received any updates from the board or interim superintendent Ken Simington, who served as assistant superintendent when L.O.C. began their push for the course. During a brief discussion with The Chronicle earlier this year, Ken Rasheed, who helped lead the charge for the L.O.C., said Simington said he would “get back with him” after they did a little more research.

Three years later and Rasheed, the L.O.C., and now Hate Out of Winston, the local activist organization that led the way for the removal of the Confederate statue from downtown, and countless others are still waiting to hear something from Simington and the school board. Despite receiving countless emails and questions from members of Hate Out of Winston and the L.O.C. since 2016, an African American history course has never been discussed during a public school board meeting and the board does have the power to get the ball rolling on the course being added to the curriculum.

During the board of education meeting on Tuesday June 25, Johnson and several others, including current and former elected officials, joined the movement as well.

County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin brought a copy of the book, “Shelter in the Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism.” The author of the book, Dr. Jelani Favors, was a student in El-Amin’s African American History when he was a teacher at Glenn High School.

Currently, WS/FCS offers an African American history course as an elective at several high schools. At least 15 students have to sign up for the course to be taught. El-Amin, who was on the committee that pushed for the elective course, said although it was a challenge to get students to enroll in the course in the beginning, once the class began many students started to enjoy the class. He said the course inspired several students, including Dr. Favors, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in African American Studies.

“Academic excellence demands academic excellence,” said El-Amin as he stood before the members of the board of education.

“If a child is inspired to see themselves in the curriculum, they can achieve untold results and accomplishments. So I plead with you, give it your full consideration.”

Former County Commissioner Everette Witherspoon also spoke in support of the mandatory African American history course. Witherspoon, who is a graduate of Glenn, applauded the board for making history when they voted to appoint Malishai Woodbury as the first African American woman to serve as board chair and Dr. Kenneth Simington as the first African American interim superintendent. He then urged them to make history again by implementing the mandatory course.

“I’d like to thank you for your wisdom, your leadership, and the vision to not only create African American history once, but twice.” Witherspoon continued, “But the job is not over. I would like for you to continue in that vain of leadership, courage, and vision by making African American history a mandatory class in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County Schools.”

Although they weren’t in attendance during the meeting, Winston-Salem City Council members Denise “D.D.” Adams and James Taylor, who is also publisher of The Chronicle, sent letters to the board members to show their support for the African American history course.  State House Representative Evelyn Terry also sent a letter to the board.

Following the public comment portion of the meeting, Barbara Hanes Burke, board vice chair, spoke up and let it be known that she supports the push for a mandatory African American history course. Burke, who is a former vice principal at Carver High School, said, “I 1,000% support everyone here who spoke out for a mandatory African American history course.” She said since her first Curriculum Committee meeting, she has been raising questions about the course.

Burke noted during the May 21 Curriculum Committee meeting, board members discussed the African American history course and decided to let experts in the area look into the required course. She then announced that the board will discuss including a required African American history course at the high school level, but the item won’t be up for discussion until October.

“You know we have to follow a process. New courses come to the Curriculum Committee for consideration at the October meeting. At our September Curriculum Committee meeting we will review background information about African American history,” continued Burke. “We will hear from those experts on our staff and we will talk about implementation and any issues that may arise and then at our October meeting we will move it to the agenda.

“I appreciate everybody’s concerns about the wellbeing of our students, but please know I share your concerns also.”

After the meeting, several members of Hate Out of Winston and the Local Organizing Committee stuck around to take photos. While they seem pleased with the progress they have made, many members let it be known that they won’t be satisfied until the course is added to the curriculum.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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