Oklahoma restricted how race can be taught. So these Black teachers stepped up
TULSA, Okla. — The schoolchildren arrived at the community center's cafeteria on a Saturday morning, their parents in tow. Some adults came without children, because they, too, wanted to learn the African American history that a new law has made many Oklahoma schoolteachers too afraid to teach.
Kristi Williams, a leader and activist in Tulsa's Black community, led them in the pledge they recite each time they gather for a day of lessons.
"We will remember the humanity, glory and suffering of our ancestors," they said in unison, "and honor the struggle of our elders."
Williams started offering these lessons early this year, after the state law — adopted by Republican legislators in 2021 — placed restrictions on how race and gender can be taught in Oklahoma's public schools.
The law has had a chilling effect on teachers who now fear that touching on race and racism in their classrooms could cost them their jobs if a student or parent complains that a lesson made them uncomfortable.
"They're just staying away from it and not teaching it," Williams said. "So I had to create a space for families to come in, and teach it."
She called it Black History Saturdays. It's one local, grassroots initiative among numerous that have sprung up across the country in places where Republicans have adopted restrictions that make it harder for teachers to discuss race in classrooms.
Williams launched her program – with financial help from the National Geographic Society – out of a resolve not to let Republican politics deny Black children the right to learn honest history about racism and their ancestors' struggles to overcome it. It's free for children and adults and meets one Saturday a month.
"We're reclaiming this," said Dewayne Dickens, a Tulsa Community College professor who Williams recruited to teach the high schoolers in her program. Restoring honest race history to the state's public schools is critical, he said, but the Tulsans showing up for Black History Saturdays are also declaring that "we can teach our children, we can teach ourselves, and we can do it better."
The law's chilling effect was immediate
The Oklahoma law – H.B. 1775 – lists several "discriminatory principles" that teachers may not include in lessons. They include: that one race or gender is superior to another, that a person's race or sex make them inherently racist or sexist, that someone bears responsibility for what someone of their race did in the past, or that anyone should feel guilt or discomfort because of their race or sex.
The bill drew immediate criticism from educators who said they have never taught those principles, but who said the ambiguously worded law was designed to scare them away from race lessons that might make children – especially white children – feel uncomfortable.
"The vagueness in the law means that teachers never know what trap they're going to fall into," Williams said. Those found to have violated the law can be stripped of their teaching certifications. In a state where the history of anti-Black and anti-Native American racism runs deep, teachers said they felt muzzled.
And the self-censorship started almost immediately.
Angela Mitchell was a first-grade teacher at a Tulsa school with mostly African American students. Teachers there were deliberate about stressing the concept of "Black excellence" as a way to motivate them.
"But when that bill passed, the first thing they told us was that that had to stop," Mitchell said. She said her school's administrators were concerned that a parent or child might complain that by emphasizing Black excellence, teachers were suggesting that Black students were better than others, in violation of the state law prohibiting teaching that any race is superior.
"So yes, all the people at the top had to make the choice that we could not as teachers teach our kids Black excellence," Mitchell said. "Again, not that one race is superior to another, but simply that you are amazing because of who you are."
Frustrated by those limitations, Mitchell left that job for a charter school. But she jumped at Williams' invitation to teach a class at Black History Saturdays.
"It gave me the opportunity to do what I love," she said, "to teach kids not only the safe information they can get at a public school, but also to dive deep and teach history that even I was never taught."
In her class last month, she centered her lesson on the Greenwood District, the successful Black business district in Tulsa – often called Black Wall Street — that a white mob burned to the ground during the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre, one of the worst race massacres in U.S History. The assignment for the first graders who showed up: to reimagine Black Wall Street and rebuild it as a paper model.
Free to teach, but not without precaution
Classes at Black History Saturdays are divided by grade level.
In the class for kindergarteners, Areyell Scott had just a single student at last month's gathering – a 6-year-old girl named Caiya Nemons — so her lesson was individualized. It was on Ruby Bridges, the Black first-grader who in 1960 marched past an angry white crowd to desegregate a New Orleans Elementary School.
"Why did they not like her?" Scott asked?
"Because she was Black," Caiya replied.
Scott said it was important not to sugarcoat the racist truth behind the lesson – because this is the truth of American history. But she also wanted to leave Caiya feeling inspired by Ruby Bridges' courage.
"She was able to change the trajectory of what all little colored children could be exposed to, and that's what we want to show," Scott said. In the aftermath of the law targeting race education, even a lesson as straightforward as this, she said, might make a public school teacher in Oklahoma nervous of drawing complaints.
Black History Saturdays is a private initiative, so teachers feel free to – and are encouraged to — venture into the uncomfortable terrain around race and racism.
Since H.B. 1775 became law, no teachers in Oklahoma have had their teaching certification revoked. But the State Board of Education did vote to downgrade Tulsa's accreditation after a teacher complained that an implicit bias training for teachers shamed white people. Some teachers have faced protests from angry parents and calls to be punished under the law.
Kristi Williams said although hers is a private program, she still takes steps to protect her teachers from potential backlash. She does not, for example, require them to be in the photos she sometimes posts to social media.
Many teachers she asked to offer a class in her program politely declined, citing fear of reprisal.
"And I totally understand that," Williams said. "But the teachers who said yes, they're on the front lines. And we're here creating our narrative."
'I get to learn more about my culture'
At last month's Black History Saturday, students learned about tensions within the civil rights movement, about Black leaders who overcame racism to succeed, and about Tulsa's current search for mass graves containing the remains of victims of the 1921 race massacre.
In the class for sixth graders, teacher Precious Lango led a discussion about how white slave owners had often prohibited enslaved African Americans from learning to read, fearing that education would embolden revolts. Knowledge, Lango told her students, was power.
Did her students think, she asked, that there might be a connection to the law Oklahoma Republicans had passed to limit how race can be discussed in public schools?
Sixth grader Kenya Debose raised her hand.
"They're taking our history away from us," she said.
"Yes," Lango said. "And ultimately they're taking away our power."
After class, Debose said that when her grandmother first signed her up for these weekend lessons, she was annoyed to have to wake up early. But she enjoys it now because she learns more about race than she does at her regular school.
"I've always been proud to be Black," she said, adding: "So I'm happy that I'm here because I get to learn more about my culture."
Her grandmother, Pamela Scott Vickers, is a retired teacher, and said it upsets her that the responsibility for teaching unfettered Black history should now fall to concerned citizens rather than to the public education system.
"It stirs up hurt," but it is also in line, she said, with a long history of people of color having to band together in the face of oppression. "It is so important for children to understand the struggle of living in a world where people are mean, where they will marginalize you, where they will hate you, unless you are grounded in who you are. And that's why we're here."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.