Evanstonian Meleika Gardner at the press conference announcing that State Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago, 8th) had filed the Inclusive American History Bill (HB5851). Photo by Heidi Randhava

Evanston Live TV host and activist Meleika Gardner and State Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago, 8th) announced that the Inclusive American History Bill (HB5851) was filed with the Illinois House of Representatives on Oct. 9 by Rep. Ford. A press conference was held the same day at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

HB5851 establishes the Inclusive American History Commission to update the state’s history curriculum so that textbooks, class discussions and other course materials can more accurately reflect an examination of history through the inclusion of diverse perspectives.

Speakers at the event cited personal experiences with history classes and teaching materials that minimized or overlooked the contributions of many groups, such as women, people of color including Black, Native American, LatinX and Asian people, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.

House Bill 5851 calls for a shift from history lessons to civics courses during the 2021-22 school year, until recommendations from the commission are implemented in Illinois schools. The commission would be expected to complete its work by the end of next year, with a new curriculum fully adopted by June 30, 2022.

“In textbooks that are out right now, in those that were out when I was a kid and when my mom was a kid, white men are seen as the heroes and inventors – the builders of the nation. And we know that is not true. Every culture has helped build this nation. That needs to be taught, so that all of our children will have self-respect and a sense of identity, and be able to better understand and respect each other,” said Ms. Gardner, who is a director of the nonprofit Women Empowering Women in Local Legislation (We Will).

Also speaking in support of the bill were Oakton Elementary School principal Dr. Michael Allen, We Will founder Alexandra Eidenberg, educator Vanessa Alvarado, We Will president Erica Walker, DuSable Museum President and CEO Perri Irmer, DuSable Museum Director of Education and Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Chicago State University Kim Dulaney and Rep. Ford.

In his statement, Dr. Allen recalled that, despite being an honor student throughout his K-12 education, he had “a deep feeling of disconnection and emptiness in school when we approached the topic of history. … Foolish was exactly what it felt like to blindly consume information that I knew left out the truth.”

During a college spring break when he was home caring for his younger brother, he went on “a digital pilgrimage back to Africa. … I stayed up, completely entrenched in mind, body and spirit … and studied people like James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Fred Hampton, Kathleen Cleaver and Marcus Garvey, who said, ‘A people without knowledge of their culture, history and origin is like a tree without roots.’ Finally, for the first time in my life I could face the feeling that I had carried with me for nearly 12 years of my educational journey.

“Then I stumbled into the Reconstruction Era. … It was very different from what I learned in school. I realized that people, my people, Black people, had their own Wall Street – doctors, judges and lawyers, and so many others. … I learned the truth about slavery and how it was instituted in America,” said Dr. Allen.

He went further back in history and learned about places like Timbuktu in Mali and people like 14th-century African emperor Mansa Musa.

“By the end of the week, I was flooded in so many emotions that were rooted in truth,” said Dr. Allen. He said his journey of self-discovery during that spring break led him to discover his purpose as an educator.

“Situating oneself in relation to the global world accurately is one of the most important ways for kids to know who they are, and also provides a holistic approach to reading. It is for these reasons and so many others that I support House Bill 4954 – Black History Education Expansion – as well as The American History Bill,” said Dr. Allen, who was named the 2020 Elementary Principal of the Year (North Cook Region) by the Illinois Principals Association.

The newly filed American History Bill (HB5851) grew out of House Bill (HB) 4954, filed by Rep. Ford on Feb. 13 of this year. HB4954 would expand Black history instruction for Illinois students in grades K-12 to include pre-enslavement Black history and the American civil rights renaissance.

With support Ms. Eidenberg and approval from Rep. Ford, Ms. Gardner authored the Amendment to HB4954 that would require pre-enslavement Black history instruction, to teach the rich history of African civilizations that thrived for thousands of years before transatlantic enslavement.

In concluding the event, Rep. Ford thanked the speakers and museum staff for sharing their insight and personal experiences. He gave special thanks to Ms. Gardner “for believing in this [bill] and giving it a life.

“People – not just us – have been saying ‘Let’s get [history] right’ for many, many years. In 1933, Carter G. Woodson wrote in ‘The Mis-Education of the Negro.’ Well, I think today, in 2020, you could say there is the mis-education of the American people, and not just the Negro,” said Rep. Ford.

Evanston educators and community leaders have advocated for both HB5851 and HB4954 in public statements made at press conferences held at Evanston locations over the past several months

Local community leaders spoke passionately in support of Black history expansion in Illinois public schools at a press conference hosted by Rep. Ford, Ms. Gardner and We Will in June at Fountain Square in Evanston.

More recently in August, Evanston educator Tasha Nemo spoke in support of HB4954 at another press conference, also at Fountain Square, where Fifth Ward Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons announced a Proclamation for Black Justice from the Evanston Black Community.

In her comments about the importance of Black history education expansion for Illinois students, Ms. Nemo echoed other advocates of the bill when she said, “History textbooks are not integrative, inclusive and honest.”

Also in August, nine guest speakers joined Rep. Ford, Ms. Gardner and Mayor Stephen Hagerty at the first  press conference held at the newly expanded Robert Crown Center to speak in support of HB5851. Many of the speakers “represented groups that have helped build this country, but have not been represented in our American history curriculum,” Ms. Gardner said at the event.

In addition to Mayor Hagerty, guest speakers at the August press conference included educator LaShandra Smith-Rayfield; Beth Emet Synagogue Rabbi Andrea London; Northwestern University Assistant Professor of African American Studies Kihana Miraya Ross; Ms. Alvarado; Dr. Allen; attorney Quandra Speights; activist Henry Wilkins; arts administrator and film producer Pemon Rami;, and Books Over Balls nonprofit co-founder Revin Fellows. Also attending in support of HB5851 was a staff member from the Evanston office of State Representative Robyn Gabel.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.