Northam - African American History Education Commission

ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at the inaugural meeting of the African American History Education Commission at the University of Virginia.

A commission of 34 people from across the commonwealth gathered at the University of Virginia on Monday to kick off a review of how African American history is taught in public schools in the state.

“Black oppression is alive and well as we sit here today, it’s just in a different form,” Gov. Ralph Northam told commission members. “That’s why it’s so important to reach out to our children and really make sure that they understand the truth.”

The African American History Education Commission includes historians, educators, faith leaders, parents, professors and others. The group met for several hours Monday to make a plan for the next several months.

Northam speaks at commission's inaugural meeting - photos

Among the group’s members are Derrick Alridge, a professor at UVa’s Curry School of Education, and Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins.

The commission is tasked with recommending technical edits to the state standards related to African American history, as well as broader suggestions related to the social studies standards and professional development “to ensure culturally competent instruction.” The final report is due July 1.

Northam established the group in August as the state marked the 400th anniversary of when the first Africans were brought to America and arrived at Fort Monroe.

He said the history of African Americans is the state’s history.

“We have to tell the truth,” he said. “We have to know the truth, and that starts with educating our children.”

Northam has placed a greater emphasis on race and race relations following a blackface scandal in February in which state and federal officials called on him to resign after a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page was brought to light.

“I think it’s fair to say that after what happened in February in the commonwealth of Virginia and also the fact we just commemorated the 400th year of history in our commonwealth at Fort Monroe, that there is a level of awareness regarding race and equity that I have never seen, certainly in my lifetime,” he said. “I think it really gives us a unique opportunity to do some good things in Virginia.”

Locally, school divisions already are working to include more perspectives in history classes, beyond what the state standards dictate, and to focus more on local history.

“We want to give as much autonomy to the localities because they know their community best,” said Atif Qarni, secretary of education for Virginia. “We trust them to educate their children.”

Northam told the commission members that they should look at who is teaching students, how they are prepared and what they are teaching.

“My perception in listening to a lot of individuals is that not only is what [students are] learning inadequate, it’s also inaccurate,” he said.

Northam said that when he was in school, he learned Virginia history chronologically, but he doesn’t think that’s the best way to move forward.

“I think we need to think thematically,” he said. “Race and equity are really interwoven into all of the different things that we do on a day-to-day basis.”

He also asked the commission to think outside the classroom for teaching tools, specifically the historical homes, landmarks and museums in the state.

“... Look at ways that we can get our students out of the classroom and into these settings where they can see and feel our 400 years of history, and that may be easier said than done,” he said.

As part of a partnership with Montpelier, some Albemarle County students will be taking field trips to James Madison’s home this school year.

UVa President Jim Ryan also was on hand for the inaugural meeting. He compared the commission’s work to the university’s efforts to examine its role in slavery and during segregation.

“As a university, we ought to be dedicated to pursuing the truth, and that should begin at home,” he said. “It’s important that we understand our path — the good, the bad and the truly ugly.”

Ryan said talking about difficult issues can be liberating.

“Not talking about something doesn’t make it go away,” he said. “It just buries it. … To the extent that you are bringing these ideas and these conversations to K-12 classrooms, I think you are helping to liberate the next generation to assess the past honestly.”

Ryan urged the commission to present the full story to students. The past, he said, is messy and complicated.

“Beware of a single narrative,” he said. “Beware of the idea that there’s a neat arc of progress where it was bad then and it’s better now, that there are clear heroes and clear villains … To fully understand the future, you have to understand that there are an awful lot of narratives, not one single neat one.”

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