Do Florida’s new African American History Standards “whitewash our history,” as claimed by the teachers’ union?

ACEA President Carmen Ward tells the Alachua County School Board on July 18 that she is headed to Orlando to “urge them not to whitewash our history in the state of Florida with the standards.”


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the July 18 Alachua County School Board meeting, Alachua County Education Association President Carmen Ward told the board that she had to leave the meeting early because she was driving down to Orlando to attend the July 19 State Board of Education meeting “to urge them not to whitewash our history in the state of Florida with the standards.”

School Board Chair Tina Certain said she had been “kind of reading some of that stuff, and I’m a little bit disturbed at how watered-down the standards that they’re putting forth are becoming, so just for the record: my ancestors and those who were enslaved, there was slavery. It was not indentured servitude, I’ve just gotta say that. That’s one of the things that they’re saying they will change–they won’t refer to it as slavery, it’ll be referred to as indentured servitude. And that’s an insult, I think, to everyone.”

At their July 19 meeting, the State Board of Education considered updates to the State Academic Standards for Social Studies that include a new K-12 strand for African American History, developed to align with statutory and State Board requirements. The standards, found here, add the African American History standards to the other Social Studies strands: Civics and Government, Holocaust Education, Financial Literacy, American History, World History, Humanities, Psychology, Geography, Economics, and Sociology.

The list of standards at the end of this article is lengthy, but most adults will learn something just by skimming them, and some version of the word “slave” appears 42 times in the standards listed below. Indentured servitude is also mentioned, but the emphasis is on contrasting indentured servitude with “race-based, hereditary slavery.”

Objections from the Vice President, the NAACP, and the FEA

Yesterday in Jacksonville, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “Just yesterday in the state of Florida, they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery.” 

A statement from the NAACP said, “The new standards convey a sanitized and dishonest telling of the history of slavery in America, suggesting that enslaved people developed skills that ‘could be applied for their personal benefit.’”

The Florida Education Association‘s (FEA) statement said the standards are “a disservice to Florida’s students and are a big step backward for a state that has required teaching African American history since 1994.”

The FEA’s concerns include “conflat[ing] the 1920 Ocoee Massacre… with ‘acts of violence perpetrated by African Americans,’” but the wording in that standard is actually “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.”

The FEA’s second concern is that the standards “require middle school students to be taught that the experience of slavery was beneficial to African Americans because it helped them acquire skills.” However, the standard says that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

“It is disappointing, but nevertheless unsurprising, that critics would reduce months of work to create Florida’s first ever stand-alone strand of African American History Standards to a few isolated expressions without context.” – statement from Dr. William Allen and Dr. Frances Presley Rice

Dr. William Allen and Dr. Frances Presley Rice, members of Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup, said in a statement, “The intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefited. This is factual and well documented.” They go on to list well-known blacksmiths, shoemakers, fishing and shipping industry workers, tailors, and teachers. “Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resilience during a difficult time in American history. Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants. It is disappointing, but nevertheless unsurprising, that critics would reduce months of work to create Florida’s first ever stand-alone strand of African American History Standards to a few isolated expressions without context.”

The FEA also expresses concern that “elementary school students are expected to be able to ‘identify’ famous African Americans… But their study of African American history does not extend to understanding these individuals’ histories and struggles.” However, as the standards below demonstrate, students are learning about the struggles of African Americans by fifth grade, with more detail added at each level of the standards.

Elementary, middle school, and high school standards

Here are the standards in the early grades:

  • Kindergarten: Recognize African American inventors and explorers
  • 1st grade: Identify African American artists
  • 2nd grade: Identify African Americans who demonstrated civic service and oral traditions and folktales of African Americans
  • 3rd grade: Identify African Americans who demonstrated heroism and patriotism
  • 4th grade: Identify African American community leaders who made positive contributions in the state of Florida 
  • 5th grade: Examine the life of the earliest slaves in North America, the Underground Railroad, and how former slaves partnered with other groups in assisting those escaping from slavery, and key figures in abolitionist movements. Also identify freedoms and rights secured for and by former slaves (including the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution), the roles of African Americans during westward expansions, and the contributions of African Americans in early Florida. 

Here are the middle school standards:

  • Identify Afro-Eurasian trade routes and methods prior to the development of the Atlantic slave trade, including differences between serfdom and slavery
  • Describe the contact of European explorers with systematic slave trading in Africa
  • Examine the evolution of the labor force in the use of indentured servitude contracts, including comparing the treatment of indentured servants of European and African extraction and examining the transition from an indentured to a slave-based economy.
  • Describe the history and evolution of slave codes
  • Analyze slave revolts in early colonial America
  • Examine the service and sacrifice of African patriots during the Revolutionary Era
  • Explain early congressional actions regarding the institution of slavery
  • Explain the effect of the cotton industry on the expansion of slavery
  • Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves, including how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit
  • Examine the Underground Railroad, including the use of “spirituals” and symbols as a form of communication, coordination, coding, and expression
  • Identify political figures who strove to abolish the institution of slavery
  • Evaluate various abolitionist movements, including Quakers and writings by Africans living in the United States
  • Examine how the status of slaves, those who had escaped slavery, and free blacks affected their contributions to the Civil War effort
  • Describe significant contributions made by key figures during Reconstruction

Here are the high school standards:

  • Examine the condition of slavery as it existed in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe prior to 1619
  • Analyze the development of labor systems using indentured servitude contracts with English settlers and Africans early in Jamestown, Virginia, including the shift in attitude toward Africans as Colonial America transitioned from indentured servitude to race-based, hereditary slavery
  • Analyze the reciprocal roles of the Triangular Trade routes between Africa and the western hemisphere, Africa and Europe, and Europe and the western hemisphere
  • Examine the development of slavery and describe the conditions for Africans during their passage to America
  • Explain the significance of England sending convicts, vagabonds, and children to the colonies
  • Describe the harsh conditions in the Virginia Colony
  • Compare the living conditions of slaves in British North American colonies, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, including infant mortality rates
  • Analyze the headright system in Jamestown and other southern colonies
  • Evaluate how conditions for Africans changed in colonial North America from 1619-1776, including the development of slave codes that resulted in an enslaved person becoming property with no rights
  • Evaluate efforts by groups to limit the expansion of race-based slavery in Colonial America
  • Examine different events in which Africans resisted slavery
  • Examine the significance of “Ladinos” and Spanish explorers who laid claim to “La Florida,” including how Spanish-controlled Florida attracted escaping slaves with the promise of freedom
  • Describe the contributions of Africans to society, science, poetry, politics, oratory, literature, music, dance, Christianity, and exploration in the U.S. from 1776 to 1865
  • Explain how slave codes were strengthened in response to Africans’ resistance to slavery
  • Compare the influences of individuals and groups on social and political developments during the Early National Period, including the contributions of key figures
  • Examine political actions of the Continental Congress regarding the practice of slavery, including attempts to end or limit slavery
  • Examine how federal and state laws shaped the lives and rights for enslaved and free Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries, including gradual abolition laws and the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision
  • Analyze the provisions under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution regarding slavery, including the Three-Fifths Compromise
  • Analyze the contributions of founding principles of liberty, justice, and equality in the quest to end slavery
  • Examine the range and variety of specialized roles performed by slaves, including trades and the variety of locations where slaves worked
  • Explain how early abolitionist movements advocated for the civil rights of Africans in America
  • Evaluate the Abolitionist Movement and its leaders and how they contributed in different ways to eliminate slavery
  • Describe the impact the Society of Friends (Quakers) had on the abolition of slavery
  • Explain how the Underground Railroad and its conductors successfully relocated slaves to free states and Canada
  • Explain how the rise of cash crops accelerated the growth of the domestic slave trade in the United States, including the impact of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and debates over westward expansion of slavery
  • Compare the actions of Nat Turner, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass and the direct responses to their efforts to end slavery
  • Describe the effects produced by asylum offered to slaves by Spanish Florida, including the significance of Fort Mose as the first free African community in the U.S.
  • Describe Florida colonies that existed between the colonial period through the acquisition of Florida
  • Analyze the changing social and economic roles of African Americans during the Civil War and the Exodus of 1879
  • Examine social contributions of African Americans post-Civil War, including the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and fraternal and sororal organizations
  • Examine the importance of sacrifices, contributions, and experiences of African Americans during wartime from the Spanish-American War through the Korean War, including the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen and contributions of African American women in wartime
  • Evaluate the relationship of various ethnic groups to African Americans’ access to rights, privileges, and liberties in the U.S., including U.S. Supreme Court cases and the movement for equal rights
  • Explain the struggles faced by African American women in the 19th century as it relates to issues of suffrage, business, and access to education
  • Describe the emergence, growth, destruction, and rebuilding of black communities during Reconstruction and beyond, including acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans such as the Rosewood Massacre
  • Examine economic developments of and for African Americans post-WWI, including the spending power and the development of black businesses and innovations
  • Examine political developments of and for African Americans in the post-WWI period, including ramifications of the New Deal on African Americans
  • Examine the various factors that led to and the consequences of the Great Migration
  • Describe the Harlem Renaissance and examine contributions from African American artists, musicians, and writers and their lasting influence on American culture
  • Examine and analyze the impact and achievements of African American women in the fields of education, journalism, science, industry, the arts, and as writers and orators in the 20th century
  • Analyze the impact and contributions of African American role models in the 19th and 20th centuries and explain the significance of their work on American society
  • Explain how WWII was an impetus for the modern Civil Rights Movement
  • Examine key figures and events from Florida that affected African Americans, including the Battle of Olustee
  • Analyze the influences and contributions of African American musical pioneers
  • Analyze the influence and contributions of African Americans to film
  • Examine the importance of sacrifices, contributions, and experiences of African Americans during military service from 1954 to present
  • Analyze the course, consequence, and influence of the modern Civil Rights Movement
  • Compare differing organizational approaches to achieving equality in America, including the NAACP and Black Panther Party
  • Examine organizational approaches to resisting equality in America, including the Ku Klux Klan, poll taxes, literacy laws, sundown laws, and commentary on just and unjust laws
  • Explain the struggles and successes for access to equal educational opportunities for African Americans, including Brown v. Board of Education
  • Analyze the contributions of African Americans to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
  • Examine the key people who helped shape the modern civil rights movement
  • Identify key legislation and individuals who advanced American equality and representative democracy
  • Analyze the role of famous African Americans who contributed to the visual and performing arts
  • Analyze economic, political, legal, and social experiences of African Americans from 1960 to present
  • Examine key events and persons related to society, economics, and politics in Florida as they influenced African American experiences, including the integration of UF

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