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Learning “whitewashed” history puts Virginia students behind before they ever reach college, civil rights groups say.

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A coalition of state and national civil rights organizations launched a campaign Wednesday to counteract Virginia’s attempt to ban the teaching of what Governor Glenn Youngkin labeled “inherently divisive concepts”—including the history of Black people, racism and oppression in the United States.

The Virginia NAACP joined the national NAACP, the Leadership Conference Education Fund and People for the American Way in condemning Youngkin’s recent actions—particularly his establishment of a “tip line” for parents to report teachers in public K-12 schools who teach what the governor repeatedly describes as “critical race theory.” Coalition members believe that despite being targeted at primary schools, the measures will also result in negative consequences for colleges and universities.

“The whitewashing of American history is antithetical to American values and to what we teach our students in school,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, said during a media call announcing the campaign. “Our role is to help build an America as good as our ideals, and we do that by teaching, thoughtfully and in an unvarnished way, the truth of who we are as a people and how we came to be. It is a story of great celebration. American democracy is still a work in progress. We are being perfected to become the highest representation of our values as we can.”

Although the target of the Virginia order is elementary and high school education, Amy Tillerson-Brown, education chair of the Virginia NAACP and chair of the history department at Mary Baldwin University, in Staunton, Va., pointed out that the effect on college programs, faculty and students is obvious: students are coming to college not knowing Black history that they should have already learned.

Wes Bellamy, who is chair of the political science department at Virginia State University and is also involved in the campaign, said higher ed leaders also have a responsibility to stop Youngkin’s efforts.

“When we talk to our students about what is not being taught and how that is allowed … via policy, that is the uncommon piece … we have to make sure that we continue to speak on,” he said. “In order for us to be able to address this policy, we have to be vocal, we have to be educated and we have to be empowered.”

Youngkin’s press office responded to an inquiry about the coalition’s efforts by referring to a previous comment by the governor: “We must teach all of our history. We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve come from. And we can teach all of our history, the good and the bad, and Virginia’s children will be better for it. So we can do both and I look forward to continue to deliver for parents, for students, for teachers, for schools, collectively as we raise expectations of excellence in Virginia in our schools and teach our children how to think, not what to think.”

Debates about American racial history had a prominent role in Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign last year and spilled onto the campus of the Virginia Military Institute after some alumni falsely claimed the institution’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives were an effort to establish critical race theory on campus. The alumni said they hoped the governor would intercede and end the alleged teaching of divisive concepts.  

To illustrate what is in danger of being erased from state school curriculum when history is not taught accurately, or is overlooked, Tillerson-Brown, who is also dean of the Mary Baldwin College for Women, recalled the story of Barbara Johns and the stand she and her Black high school classmates took in 1951 when they staged a walkout to protest substandard conditions at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va. The walkout led to a lawsuit against the Prince Edward County school board.

The suit and similar ones from around the country were later consolidated into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that eventually ended “separate but equal” schooling in 1954. But, Tillerson-Brown noted, dating back to when she started teaching college more than 20 years ago, Barbara Johns’s name was unknown to each class of new students.

“There are times recently, within the last five years, that I’ll get students who may have heard her name but who do not know her story,” Tillerson-Brown said during the call. “Her history, the history of her activism, is largely unknown except to people who actually study civil rights history.”

Because of Youngkin’s January executive order, she said, “My fear … is with this scheme of divisive education that is coming now, that those important stories will be washed away and will not be taught, because they will be labeled as divisive and thus struck from the curriculum. That is something we cannot have.”

As part of their efforts to counteract the Youngkin administration’s policies, the coalition announced the creation of a website, Black History Is American History, and a call-in campaign for families across the state, of all races and nationalities, to fill the state tip line with stories about the history that the executive order is prohibiting.

The URL redirects to a page on the Leadership Conference Education Fund’s site, which explains the campaign and directs visitors to a page to send Youngkin emails about the damage his order does: “Tell Governor Youngkin today that Black history is American history, and we won’t allow our history to be erased in Virginia schools.”

Henderson, of the Leadership Conference, said the immediate focus is on Virginia largely because of Youngkin’s edict, but also because of how intricately entwined Virginia is in the history of Black people in America, starting with the arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619 and continuing through the massive resistance against the Brown decision that Virginia participated in. But, he said, the coalition is encouraging similar actions in every state where analogous government bans are being put in place.

The coalition members are clearly hoping the campaign appeals to Virginians’ sense of social responsibility, especially those of Black Virginians.

“Now we have to take it to the next level, whether it’s volunteering, educating yourself, passing lessons down … We have to all make sure that we have all hands on deck,” said Bellamy, who said he has two children who attend school in Charlottesville.

Bellamy used himself and his college students as an example to prove Tillerson-Brown’s point: he did not grow up in Virginia, and when he moved there, he did not know of the Johns case. Numerous classes of students he’s taught were largely unaware of it as well. “There are a lot of folks who just do not know the story,” he said, “and it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that we continue to teach this history, and I think there are opportunities to do so, and we are doing so.”

“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty,” Tillerson-Brown said. “However, even today there are some people who would find Barbara Johns’s contribution to civil rights history disturbing—divisive, even. Why?”

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