• Susannah Colt

BLACK HISTORY DISINFORMATION - Brought to you by NH Dept. of Education

The NH Department of Education (NHDOE), in collaboration with the Woodson Center, has produced a series of videos recognizing Black History Month, encouraging schools to show them, along with providing lesson plans. According to the NHDOE’s press release, they are aiming “to provide a robust and complete story of American history.”

While I applaud the sentiment behind this initiative, I am concerned that the cherry-picked videos do not provide the complete story of American history. Education should not come from just one perspective, but should include the expression of various opinions, especially when teaching about Black American history.

The first video offered is about Booker T. Washington (1859-1915), whom the narrator of the video states “became one of the most influential and empowering intellectuals on the face of the earth.” This fact, in and of itself, is widely disputed among historians and scholars, considering that one could also argue that W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was “one of the most influential and empowering intellectuals on the face of the earth,” not to mention Ida B. Wells and many other noted intellectuals from the turn of the 20th century. Without context, this statement alone is misleading and does not reveal the full picture of a very crucial period in American history.

The three-minute video focuses on one very small aspect of Washington’s life, his collaboration with Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy white philanthropist, to build schools for poor Black children between the years of 1912-1932. Washington’s involvement in this initiative was crucial to its success, but he died in 1915, leaving Rosenwald to carry it on in his absence (the date of Washington’s death is never noted in the video). It should also be noted that the generic name for the schools was “Rosenwald Schools” not “Washington Schools.”

I tried to put myself in the shoes of a student watching this video. What struck me immediately was that the schools were built for Black children and there was not a white child anywhere to be seen. The only white face was that of Rosenwald’s.

There was little to no context provided to explain why poor Black children did not have access to a good education. Not a single mention of Jim Crow laws that legalized the segregation of schools and all other public accommodations after the Supreme Court in 1896, in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, ruled that segregation was legal as long as it was “equal.” The Rosenwald schools were far from equal to the white schools of that time, but the video claims that they narrowed the achievement gap but never achieved parity, and that appeared to be good enough.

As we look back on history, there is a debate as to whether Washington’s approach to Black uplift was the right path to take. Or did Du Bois have a better formula for upward mobility.

Washington believed it was safer and better to remain separate from whites rather than attempt desegregation. His philosophy was focused on the idea of self-sufficiency, emphasizing Black economic freedom and argued that Black Americans would gain acceptance and economic stability in society through their skills and labor. In his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech, he pushed for Black uplift through “self-improvement” and attempting to “dignify and glorify common labor.” He tried to convince white folks to just let Black people farm their land, work their jobs, and get basic education. If that happened, they wouldn’t push back against Jim Crow segregation.

In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, published in 1901, Washington urged Black people to obey segregation laws and show deference to white authorities to keep the peace.

On the other hand, Du Bois’ focus was more along the lines of challenging Jim Crow laws, focusing on social justice, integration, and equality rather than settling on segregation. He also promoted a more elite philosophy around education, promoting the idea that the only way for Black people to reach their full potential was to be college-educated and “classically trained.” Admittedly, his ideas did not sit well with many people, but he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and it still exists today.

A separate wing of the NAACP, called the Legal Defense Fund, fought segregation in the schools in the courts for the next four decades and ultimately was responsible for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which ruled that segregation was illegal under the 14th Amendment.

It is interesting to note that one of the Woodson Center’s Lesson Plans entitled “Rosenwald 9” takes a dim view of Brown v. Board of Education, blaming the seminal Supreme Court decision for the demise of the Rosenwald schools and creating a “difficult path towards racially integrated school systems and, hopefully, educational equality.”

When I studied the Woodson Center’s mission and policies, I was able to discern some of Washington’s philosophy for Black upward mobility in their statements, which is why I believe they chose this story for presentation to schools. Because the NHDOE collaborated with the Woodson Center, one can reasonably infer that they too prefer Washington’s philosophies, which in my opinion is a lopsided presentation of history.

The competing visions of Washington and Du Bois help make clear that Black thinking, Black politics, and Black conception of how to make progress in America are not, and have never been, black and white. That is why NHDOE’s decision to only present one side of the argument is short sighted.

The Woodson Center’s “1776 Unites” curriculum was created as a counterpoint to the “1619 Project.” Perhaps the NHDOE could pick a video from the 1619 Project curriculum to go along with the video presented by the 1776 Unites curriculum. That would provide a more balanced education for the students, creating better critical thinkers who could help advocate for a more just society in the near future.

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