State Representative La Shawn Ford introduced HB4954 in February of this year. 
Photo by Heidi Randhava
State Representative La Shawn Ford introduced HB4954 in February of this year. Photo by Heidi Randhava

Black history education, mandated by law in Illinois public schools, usually begins with the study of slavery. American textbooks have summarized Black history with Eurocentric narratives that minimize the contributions of African Americans beyond forced labor and omit the rich history of African civilizations that thrived for thousands of years before transatlantic enslavement.

Evanston resident and activist Meleika Gardner is working to change these narratives with a new Black history curriculum that includes pre-enslavement history, contributions and achievements of Black people from 3,000 BCE to 1619 CE.

Ms. Gardner, founder of Evanston Live TV and board member of Women Empowering Women in Local Legislation (We Will), authored an Amendment to bill HB4954 that would require public schools in Illinois to teach Black history beyond slavery.

Introduced by State Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago, 8th), HB4954 calls for complete and accurate Black history education for all students in grades K-12.

With support from We Will founder Alexandra Eidenberg, Ms. Gardner reached out to Rep. Ford last fall to ask him if she could write an amendment to the bill that would require that pre-enslavement history be taught in Illinois school systems, and he agreed.

“I don’t think that we would be this far with getting a perfect account of American history without her,” said Rep. Ford in his introduction of Ms. Gardner at a press conference last month at Fountain Square in downtown Evanston.

They were joined by local community leaders including District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, Evanston/North Shore NAACP president Dr. Michael Nabors, diversity consultant Gilo Kwesi Logan, civil rights leader Bennett Johnson, We Will President Erika Walker, arts administrator and theater director Pemon Rami and Books Over Balls NFP co-founder Revin Fellows in voicing support for HB4954.

The speakers were passionate and consistent about the need for educators to teach Black history before the slave trade and to explain that Africa is a vast, diverse continent of many different cultures.

“Black people did not begin with slavery. We built civilizations. We built kingdoms. We contributed to medicine, technology, literature. And these are things that children need to know – all children, not just Black children. If this bill passes, it will create a sense of self-identity, self-worth, self-knowledge, race identity. And it will help with race relations as well, because we will be starting it from kindergarten to twelfth grade,” said Ms. Gardner.

Dr. Horton, who was appointed in December 2019 to lead Evanston/Skokie District 65 schools, began officially serving as superintendent on July 1.

“Maya Angelou said it best: ‘In order for us to move forward in life, we must understand our history. We must know where we come from,’” Dr. Horton began in his remarks.

“A vote of no support (for HB4954) will deny our students a critical opportunity for sustained, more robust learning experiences about Black history and heritage and the cruel actions of others to remove generations of families from their homes in their native lands,” said Dr. Horton. He emphasized that all students will benefit from an expanded Black history curriculum.

“This exposure has the potential to transform how students see and interact with each other and directly combat racism,” said Dr. Horton.

Dr. Nabors, pastor at Second Baptist Church in Evanston as well as president of NAACP Evanston/North Shore, referenced the wave of national protests ignited by the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all victims of racial violence.

“You cannot tell me that these people who are protesting in the streets today are not protesting for their own country, for their own belief that they are inevitably a part of this nation – what it was, what it will be and what it is now. So we are here today to say, ‘We are here, and we are here to stay, and we are here to make our story known.’ To do that, in my estimation, is to be supportive of this bill,” said Dr. Nabors.

Dr. Logan spoke about his experiences as an educator of students in elementary school through college. “At every single level, I’ve had students, Black students in particular, who had no idea who we are as a people. I’ve had white students, Latinx students, Asian students who had no idea who we are as Black people. … Carter G. Woodson, almost 100 years ago, talked about the miseducation of the Negro. …That does not only impact the Negro, or the Black person or African American – it impacts us all. … We have all been miseducated by the system we are living in. This bill needs to be passed for the benefit of everyone,” said Dr. Logan.

Ald. Rue Simmons, the lead advocate for reparations in Evanston, spoke about the potential for those funds to benefit Black history education here.

“In Evanston, we’re working towards reparations. We have a commitment to that here. We have identified a funding stream and we are moving forward. As we take community feedback on what repair looks like in Evanston, it is often times education that is a key piece to what repair looks like,” she said.

In addition to ensuring that children learn that Black Americans have a history in both Africa and North America, Ms. Garner’s amendment would further expand the curriculum to include “the American civil rights renaissance, that period of time from 1954 to 1965 called the Movement; the study of the reasons why Black people became enslaved; and the promotion of a commonality of identity for all people to help with conflict resolution and to increase self-worth,” according to the text.

Research has shown that racial attitudes are shaped by the start of Kindergarten. If HB4954 passes, Illinois will be in a position to lead the way in mandating that Black History education include pre-enslavement history for every grade level, including the youngest school-age children.

In Evanston/Skokie District 65, pre-Kindergarten – eighth-grade students engaged in classroom discussions around race and racism with the guidance of their teachers during National Black Lives Matter week in February 2020. Lessons included “Diversity and Globalism” and “Intergenerational, Black Families and Black Villages,” among others, according to information at https://blmweekd65.weebly.com/

At Evanston Township High School, some changes are being made to the elective Advanced Placement U.S. History course. “We are expanding it with a lens that allows students to explore their identity. Nicole Parker, the History Department Chair, is working with Shorefront [Legacy Center]. … We are making it so that students can see themselves in history,” Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis told the RoundTable.

Dr. Bavis said pre-enslavement African history is taught during freshman year, when all students are required to take 1 Humanities History. The required U.S. history course taken by juniors includes slave narratives, autobiographical accounts of fugitive or former slaves including various speeches written by Frederick Douglass and essays by W.E.B. Du Bois. African American history is an elective for ETHS seniors. Four history and social sciences credits are currently required for graduation from ETHS. Each credit is one semester.

There are no national standards for teaching Black history. A 2020 CBS News investigation, “50 states, 50 different ways of teaching America’s past,” looked into how Black history is taught in all 50 states and District of Columbia “The analysis uncovered problematic lessons, varying interpretations of history and recommendations for what students should learn,” according to reporting by Jericka Duncan, Christopher Zawistowski and Shannon Luibrand.

Illinois is among a handful of states, including Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and New York with laws requiring that it be taught in public schools. However, critics question whether the mandates are enforced. Philadelphia was the first school district to make a year-long African American studies course a requirement for high school graduation in 2005.

HB4954 passed 14-7 when it went before the Illinois House Committee in early March. The state legislative session was suspended in response to COVID-19 in mid-March, when the bill was scheduled to go before the full Illinois House of Representatives for a vote. Supporters are now looking toward the fall legislative session for passage of the bill.

“When the bill passed out of committee … the sense at the time was that we were still far away. People didn’t feel that we needed to pass a bill like this. But since George Floyd, since we’ve had unrest in the neighborhoods, I’ve gotten calls from  my white colleagues who told us during committee that they were not for it – and now they believe more than ever that we need to pass a bill like this,” said Rep. Ford.

“We’ve been fighting for getting Black history taught in schools, but Meleika Gardner brought a whole new life to this because she told the people in Springfield that our lives didn’t start as enslaved people, and that’s a big deal,” said Rep. Ford.

In a follow-up conversation with the RoundTable, he discussed the need for a new Black history education curriculum in Illinois.

“What children learn about African American history depends on where they live. The problem is, we have requirements in Illinois, but it’s not done, and it’s not a perfect account. It’s a miseducation of the people because it’s not really giving an accurate account of the history,” said Rep. Ford.

The amendment written by Ms. Gardner that would require pre-enslavement history is unique, he said, “because we’re going to go for a complete account of Black history.”

The Illinois representative said miseducation occurs when textbooks begin with the arrival of enslaved Africans in the Americas. “It’s as if we were all born to be slaves, and that’s not the way it was,” said. Rep. Ford.

Filed with the Illinois House of Representatives on Feb. 13, 2020 by Rep. Ford, the bill’s co-sponsors include Illinois Representatives Sonya Harper (D), Joyce Mason (D), Anne Stava-Murray (D), LaToya Greenwood (D), Maurice West (D), Debbie Meyers-Martin (D), and Karina Villa (D).

Ms. Gardner encouraged supporters of the bill to contact their representative. “Let them know this is important, and they need to be on the right side of history,” said Ms. Gardner.