In a city that is over 80 percent Black, in a school that is 99.4 percent Black, one would imagine that students know well the most basic and crucial elements of slavery:
Why did the South secede from the Union? What was the cause of the Civil War? What impact did slavery have on the country? What forces contributed to slavery as an economic system?
As rudimentary as these questions are, 50 percent of America’s youth don’t know the answers, according to a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
SPLC said in its report “Teaching Hard History,” released in January, only 8 percent of high school seniors identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, and fewer than one in four can correctly identify how stipulations in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
With nationwide data such as this, one wonders if the stats apply as well to urban minority schools, such as Renaissance High in Detroit.
100 RHS students surveyed using the same questions as the SPLC study, by some measures, demonstrated the nationwide trend of not knowing.
While 72 percent of RHS students surveyed knew that the South seceded to preserve slavery, more than half didn’t know how many slaves were transported across the ocean in a single decade of the trade of enslaved people.
Only 54 percent of RHS students surveyed could identify how many of the first 18 presidents owned slaves. Nearly half doesn’t even know the document that formally ended slavery.
Eniah Hill, a Renaissance senior, says that she remembers lessons on slavery as “never in detail.”
“I noticed that we talked about the construction of slavery, the before and after, but never the actual slaves and the system it created,” says Hill, who serves as Renaissance’s NHS President. Hill’s comment reflected one of the SPLC’s findings: that Americans “tend to center on the white experience when [they] teach about slavery.”
The SPLC report noted that teachers are often more comfortable teaching about white people in the years that led up to slavery, preferring to avoid the lives of enslaved people and the “broader and political effects of slavery” itself.
Hill says that in a perfect world, schools would teach a “three-part lesson,” which would cover the start of slavery, other parts of the world that participated, and end with the Civil War/ slavery’s continuing impact.
RHS senior Amari Harris has a similar experience, remembering lessons on slavery being “tangential,” and that teachers avoided “the true story of the atrocity of slavery itself.”
He believes that students of all races should learn about slavery authentically, lest history become so warped that slavery eventually seem unimportant.
“The thing about history is that if you don’t have all the pieces, it’s invalid. I don’t want people to have the wrong idea about [slavery], and anyone who wants to avoid the past wants it forgotten,” said 18-year-old Harris.
SPLC outlined seven reasons why students aren’t learning about slavery effectively.
It claims that “schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and – as a result – students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America.”
Janice Rowley, a seasoned DPS/CD educator and historian, agrees with the SPLC, and recognizes a detriment that this lack of knowledge has on the country.
“The inability of large numbers of people learning slavery is what makes possible the very polarized United States that we see today,” says the previous African American studies professor.
Rowley says that the real issue is that teachers instructing such courses don’t have the knowledge themselves, thus they cannot teach it.
The Michigan State University graduate said another issue is that “most teachers talk about the feelings and emotions -- ‘he was beaten and was sad.’”
Rowley believes that lessons should be about “the systems and institutions that slavery created, because we still see them now.” Only then, she said, can students realize the ways in which history is repeated.
Rowley believes that if students want to see change in their curriculum, it is their job to fight for it.
Slavery is an uncomfortable topic, especially when factoring in how one might have fared in that system.
However, slavery occupies 300 years of America’s history.
Bereft the most basic facts of this period, according to Rowley and the SPLC, students will remain uncritical of how slavery created today’s institutions.