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Black churches in Florida buck DeSantis: ‘Our churches will teach our own history.’

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The 30 or so people who logged on to hear about the trans-Atlantic slave trade Wednesday night was just what Pastor Kenneth Johnson had hoped for – a sign that his congregation in Fort Pierce, Florida, was interested in learning more about Black history.

The hour-long video class was the first of a series Friendship Missionary Baptist Church plans to host this fall.

“It wasn’t a sermon. It would have passed any muster as a legitimate class,” said Johnson. “We don’t need government approval to teach our history.”

Friendship Missionary is among the more than 200 mostly Black churches in Florida taking steps to teach Black history in part because of what faith leaders call the restricted and “watered-down’’ versions schools must teach under the state’s new policies. Instead, pastors equipped with a new Black history toolkit are teaching unfiltered lessons during Sunday school, Bible Study or as part of sermons.

Faith in Florida, a coalition of churches advocating for social justice causes, created the online toolkit, which includes books, documentaries and videos related to Black history. The project, launched in July, aims to push back against state efforts to regulate Black history lessons. Florida is one of several states where mostly conservative lawmakers are leading movements to restrict some teachings of Black history.

“We have a responsibility as a whole to make sure our history is not erased or watered down and that it be told,’’ said Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida. “It happened. It’s history.’’

This is not a new role for Black churches, which have long filled education gaps in their communities, historians said. But many said these lessons are needed now as much as ever.

“It’s not farfetched to think that a (Black) church is going to be able to provide educational opportunities where they see public institutions failing,’’ Howard Robinson, a historian at Alabama State University in Montgomery, said.

What DeSantis said about Black history, slavery

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has led efforts across the state to embrace policies that restrict how certain topics, including race, sexuality and gender, are taught in schools and colleges.

Earlier in the year, DeSantis signed legislation that banned the use of state funds to support diversity and inclusion programs at public universities. “This has basically been used as a veneer to impose an ideological agenda and that is wrong,” he said in May.

Florida also banned the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course. Advanced placement studies are college-level courses taught to high school students who can often earn college credit. State officials have said African American history is already taught in schools. They’ve said some of the course material violates state law and take issue with the inclusion of lessons on the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, Black feminism and reparations.

DeSantis’ office referred USA Today to the Florida Department of Education for further comment. The department did not immediately respond.

Hundreds gathered to hear Gov. Ron DeSantis speak at the North Carolina Republican Party 2023 State Convention on Friday, June 9, 2023.© Megan Smith, USA TODAY

In July, the state Board of Education adopted social studies standards for teaching African American history to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Supporters said the standards include factual information, but critics argue the standards omit important parts of history, including the state’s role in slavery and the disenfranchisement of Black people and violent attacks against them. Civil rights and faith leaders also criticized language that said slaves developed skills that could be used for their personal benefit.

DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024, has defended the curriculum.

“They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” he said in July.

The Rev. Gaston Smith, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, said he was offended by DeSantis’ remarks. “If anybody benefitted from slavery, America benefitted from slavery,” he said.

‘It’s not just a Florida problem’

Smith spent last week in Bible study not only teaching from the Acts of the Apostles, but also about the struggles LaVon Bracy faced when she integrated Gainesville High School in the 1960s and became the first African American student to graduate from there.

He also turned to the toolkit for help and intentionally started with the topic of injustices because of the debate over race issues in Florida.

Smith and other pastors said they’re using the toolkit as a guide to map out lesson plans. The toolkit has about a dozen topics, including from “Africa to America,” which focuses in part on the slave trade, and “Racial Terrorism and Civil Unrest,” which includes works about the Civil Rights Movement. It offers recommendations for Black history books, videos, documentaries and other resources.

Smith, who taught about 100 churchgoers last week, hopes to also reach others through virtual services and other platforms. He said he’s disappointed state officials restricted what educators can teach about Black history.

“We can’t dwell on the fact of what they say we can’t do,” he said. “If nowhere else, the children will get it in church.”

Tony F. Drayton, lead pastor of St. James Church in Riviera, near West Palm Beachsaid it’s on more faith leaders and community leaders to teach African American history.

“We have such a captive audience,” said Drayton, who helped develop the toolkit. “From the pulpit, we have to be as woke as possible. I’m going to use that word intentionally.’’

The toolkit aims to help those new to Black history, as well as those well versed in it. Topics were chosen in part based on chronology and the importance of issues, such as criminal justice and Black women’s leadership.

Drayton stressed it’s not a curriculum, but a guide to resources and that the toolkit will continue to be updated.

Thomas said she’s also heard from faith leaders of mostly white churches interested in the toolkit. She’s also getting calls from faith leaders in states like Alabama, Georgia and Virginia.

“It’s not just a Florida problem,’’ she said.

And if educators cannot teach it, “then we will go back to where it started,’’ said Thomas. “Our churches will teach our own history.”

Black churches teach Black history, civil rights

The church has long served as the hub of civic engagement in Black communities.  It was often faith leaders who led protests and helped set up Freedom Schools during the Civil Rights Movement. In the schools, students, many of them adults, were taught to read and recite parts of the state Constitution, which was sometimes required to register to vote. The tactic was used to turn away Black citizens, who were not allowed to read during slavery.

The Black church still provides space and human resources, including teachers, to help with education, Robinson said. “The church is going to pull a whole cross-section of the Black community into its sphere so you’re going to have an expertise in the church that you’re not going to have in some other institutions,’’ he said.

Many Black colleges also have their origins in the Black church, including Alabama State University.

“The tradition of self-help is central to the Black experience,’’ Robinson said. “This is a present manifestation of it because of what’s happening in Florida.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a history professor at Harvard University in Massachusetts, said Black communities have a long tradition of teaching the truth about their past because “the freedom to learn has always been subject to legal and physical attacks.’’

Stephanie Laster works on quilts honoring Black and brown lives lost to HIV/AIDS during the Change the Pattern event held on the Alabama State University campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.© Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser

“In the tradition of Freedom Schools and Black resistance to Jim Crow, Black students will benefit from what these churches will teach them,’’ he said. “It’s really a matter of life or death.’’

Muhammad said other students should also be taught the lessons. “The problem is that white, Latinx and Asian American students need to learn the truth of African American history too,’’ he said.

Some worry about history repeating

At Johnson’s church in Fort Pierce, members can join the Black history class Wednesdays via Zoom. The church also plans to air sessions on its Facebook page. The next series will focus on Black women.

“Even the governor is welcome to attend,” Johnson said.

“I find it kind of disrespectful and even condescending to have our governor or anyone tell us what we’re allowed to learn…History is history,’’ he said. “I know it can be tainted by those who write it, but if we’re going to be who we’re called to be we have to know what we’ve been.’’

During a sermon last month at New Generation Missionary Baptist, Thomas focused on Black history in South Florida sharing how a community once called Colored Town was later changed to Overtown.

It was there in the heart of Miami that Black residents could see Black celebrities who were in town to perform at whites-only venues. The community – a mecca of Black culture – was devastated after the state built a highway through it.

“I want to make a point that history is not that far from where we are now,’’ Thomas said. “And if we’re not careful, it will repeat itself.”

Black churches in Florida buck DeSantis: ‘Our churches will teach our own history.’
Keosha Newton and Lauren Delworth pose at Juneteenth Celebration in Sarasota, Fla., on June 18, 2022, in the heart of Sarasota’s historically Black neighborhood of Newtown.© Thomas Bender

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black churches in Florida buck DeSantis: ‘Our churches will teach our own history.’

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