In the wake of George Floyd’s murder — tragically, just one of the countless murders of Black men and women due to police brutality — something has become abundantly clear: The American education system has failed to teach us the reality of American history. Not only are many events throughout Black history left unmentioned, but those covered in class are also completely White-washed.
As an individualized major in comparative literary and cultural studies, I have been studying race relations and the Black experience through the music and literature of the United States and Latin America since my first semester at UConn. It is only through these specialized courses that I have come to learn just a few of the troubling, yet accurate, facts that more accurately reflect the history of the United States of America. The following are just some examples that made the greatest impact on my understanding of the state of modern race relations in our country.
The role that continuing slavery played in the American Revolution
While it’s common knowledge that the debate over slavery was one of the major issues that caused the American Civil War, not many realize what an important role slavery played in the war that ultimately led to our country’s freedom. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, there were many slave rebellions throughout the Caribbean colonies owned by Britain, Spain and France.
These rebellions and the many newly freed Africans that came from them, along with the Somerset case of 1772 — in which the British Lord Chief Justice Mansfield declared that if a slave escaped while in England, no other man could lay claim to them, thus granting the escaped slave’s freedom — unnerved the American colonists, especially those in the South who relied on their booming export trade with Europe.
Since it seemed as though Britain was trending toward abolishing African slavery (with the country banning the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and then eventually passing a bill to abolish slavery in 1833), this could have influenced the colonists to break from Britain and demand their freedom, thus inciting the Revolutionary War. My short summary of the theory is extremely simplified, but British historian Simon Schama wrote an entire book on the topic entitled “Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution.”
America’s modern day police force was descended from slave-catching groups
With recent increased awareness in cases of police brutality against Black people — the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd just to name a few — you’ve most likely been hearing the idea that the police force in the United States is a racist system. The modern-day police force descended from a very informal system that existed in Colonial America, most notably “night watch” volunteers whose main job was to watch for colonists engaging in prostitution or gambling.
In the South, the night watch’s job also included catching runaway slaves and stifling slave revolts. During the Reconstruction period, local sheriffs also implemented the same ideals as the earlier night watch groups, enforcing segregation and depriving newly freed Black people of their rights. It was only during the early 20th century, under President Hoover, that there was a push to professionalize these police forces. Thus, the night watch’s racist ideals were able to continue in the “professionalized” form of the police that we have today.
The FBI COINTELPRO’s role in the disruption of the Black Freedom Movement
The Civil Rights Movement is a part of the standard American History curriculum. However, the version of the Civil Rights Movement that is taught in schools across America is overly simplified and extremely White-washed. The Civil Rights Movement is part of a larger movement known as the Black Freedom Movement, which comprises both the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Black Power Movement. And yet, another thing that most history textbooks ignore is the role of the FBI, through their Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), in breaking up the Black Freedom Movement.
The FBI’s COINTELPRO was created in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party. After a group of activists broke into the FBI headquarters on March 8, 1971 and stole documents, it became clear that COINTELPRO was also working to explicitly break up Black activist activity through legal harassment, intimidation, wiretapping, infiltration, smear campaigns and blackmail. Martin Luther King Jr. was their No. 1 individual target, while the Black Panther Party was their No. 1 group target.
COINTELPRO was responsible for inciting violence during the Black Freedom Movement, most notably by murdering the young leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, in 1969. In an eerily similar way to the recent murder of Breonna Taylor, Hampton was shot and killed in an FBI-sponsored home raid while sleeping in his own bed next to his pregnant girlfriend. He was only 21-years-old. The PBS documentary series “Eyes of the Prize” does an incredible job of describing the true nature of the American Civil Rights Movement, including the role of the FBI COINTELPRO.
The true nature of Civil Rights Movement activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks
From my personal public schooling experience, this is the general way Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were presented to me: MLK was a good, docile activist because he understood that nonviolence and meek solidarity were the ways to earn equality for African Americans (as well as being seen as the positive counterpart to the negative Malcolm X, which is a whole other issue), while Rosa Parks was a submissive old lady that one day decided she didn’t want to sit in the back of the bus. In reality, these descriptions of the two leaders couldn’t be further from the truth.
Parks, for one, was an activist her entire life, beginning her life’s work way before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks had served for years as the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and her action of refusing to move to the back of the bus was anything but random. It was a strategic and planned act of civil disobedience.
Within this story, it’s important to note that Parks was not the first African American female activist to refuse to move to the back of the bus. Claudette Colvin was one of the first to do this, refusing to give up her seat to a White woman on March 2, 1955, months prior to Parks’ act of resistance. However, since Colvin was a pregnant teenager, it was decided she wasn’t the proper symbolic leader to rally behind. Parks was also an extremely vocal activist for women’s rights and sexual assault.
King also has a rich history of intersectional activism that is often not mentioned in standard textbooks. His work on racism and its connection with poverty is just one example of his work that has been criminally overlooked. In November of 1967, King announced the creation of the Poor People’s Campaign. King argued that while desegregation and voting rights were essential in the fight for equality for African Americans, this equality would never be fully reached without economic security.
The Poor People’s Campaign did not only include African Americans, but also American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and poor Whites. After King’s assassination in April 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign continued, with his wife Coretta Scott King taking on a prominent role in the movement. Scott King was an activist in her own right, yet her notable activism is another part of Civil Rights history that has been virtually forgotten. Again, the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series describes all of this in great detail.
The extreme schooling and housing segregation that took place in the North
While our textbooks stressed the racial segregation in the South, especially in schools, they very rarely explained how segregation in the North became even more extreme. After Brown v. Board of Education, there was more pressure placed on Southern schools to desegregate, while in Northern states, segregation sometimes became even more rampant. A prime example of this is the Boston busing crisis that took place during the 1960s. The predominantly White schools in Boston had an abundance of materials, permanent teachers and smaller class sizes, whereas none of these things that led to higher success rates existed in predominantly Black schools. Furthermore, Boston bused White students to White schools in order to maintain the segregation in their school district.
A clause in the 1964 Civil Rights Act actually emphasized the continuation of segregation in the North. The clause draws a distinction between segregation by law, which is what existed in the South, and seemingly “natural” racial imbalances in the North, reading, “‘Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.” This led many Northern cities to continue to bus White students to predominantly White schools, leaving Black students to stay in their inferior schools.
Continued school segregation was not the only negative to occur in the North. “Redlining,” or the policy of refusing to insure mortgages in or near minority-heavy areas, happened all throughout the North. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was established in 1934, carried out this policy of redlining (literally marking minority-heavy areas in red on maps and deeming these areas dangerous to live in) as well as subsidized builders who created White-only housing complexes, explicitly stating these homes could not be sold to African Americans.
While this happened all throughout the North, one of the most clear-cut examples occurred right in Hartford, Connecticut. Although the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, making redlining on a racial basis illegal, there is evidence that redlining actively continued in the Hartford area until 1977. And even after explicit redlining stopped, the ramifications of the racialization of urban areas continues to be abundantly clear in the city. “The Color of Law,” a book by Richard Rothstein, does an incredible job of describing this phenomenon in much greater detail. What’s also important to think about are the present-day repercussions of this falsely deemed “de facto” segregation in schooling and housing in the North. The fact that this is often overlooked is one of the major reasons why segregation has been able to continue.
In no way is this an exhaustive list of Black history facts. These are simply just a very few of the many facts of American history neglected in our curriculum. I encourage you to continue to pursue this unlearning and relearning for yourself in order to better understand the current state of our country (and really, the world) as we know it.
It is through education that one develops empathy and awareness, which may ultimately lead to the change in mindset necessary in order to dismantle the system of racism that has descended from global colonization. By sharing facts and moving away from the learning of a White-washed national history, we can begin to implement long-lasting change. As Malcolm X said in a speech he gave on June 28, 1964, “Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights … Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.”