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Black Churches in Florida Step in to Teach Black History Amid Restrictions

Some Black congregations are returning to their roots serving as both the church house and school house.
Some Black congregations are returning to their roots serving as both the church house and school house.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Black History Month has been recognized by every president since Gerald Ford in 1976. But with the interpretation of that history now under scrutiny in states like Florida, some Black congregations are returning to their roots serving as both the church house and school house.

Female faith leaders tell CBN News they're on the front lines of instruction, stepping in to fill a need by teaching Black history at churches, right alongside Bible study.

Historian Dr. LaVon Bracy said, "I vividly remember what happened to me when I tried to integrate the public school system. I was spit on. I was called the N-word every day. I was beaten. And those things happened not hundreds of years ago. I'm talking 1965."

The 75-year-old's memories of being part of integrating the Alachua County, Florida school system are a painful yet indelible part of her past.

"It's uncomfortable, but it happened and we need to actually talk about it," Dr. Bracy said.

Now, she's once again breaking barriers, teaching African American history inside churches with a growing demand.

That's in response to Florida's Board of Education approving new guidelines in 2023 for its kindergarten through twelfth grade Black History Curriculum.

The required changes came about following a 2022 law Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed "Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act," or the "Stop WOKE Act."

One part of the curriculum drew widespread attention for stating that skills slaves used during the atrocities of chattel slavery were potentially beneficial.

Before going to Washington in 2011, Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson served as an elementary school principal who helped urge the state legislature to pass a 1994 law mandating Black history be taught statewide.

A founding member of the Florida African American History Task Force, she calls the new guidelines an alarming departure from educational standards.

In a statement to CBN, she says, "We cannot afford to whitewash history and deny future generations the knowledge needed to build a more just and equitable society... I fully support what our churches are doing to preserve that history."

"Just as the Black church has been a beacon of strength and empowerment throughout our history, it must now also become a vital source of knowledge and understanding for our community. Black churches have historically been a place of organizing and where movements are born, and right now, its infuriating what the State of Florida is doing and we need to go back to those roots," Wilson said.

Reverend Rhonda Thomas, who leads the organization "Faith in Florida", said, "So I took it personally. We also realized that history still sits in our appeals in the Black church."

So, Thomas created the history toolkit for churches that Bracy and others now volunteer to teach, and it has taken off. Nearly 400 houses of worship, including Protestant, Catholic and mosques, across 29 states are teaching Black history.

Haters have also taken note. Thomas tells CBN News she has received death threats. "It did not deter us, but it did empower us," she said.

That's because she sees history being on her side.

Even before slavery ended, some churches in the North doubled as schoolhouses for emancipated Black people.

After The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, many churches opened their doors to educate former slaves, helping boost southern Black literacy from five percent in 1870 to about 70 percent in 1900.

Ministers like Orlando Pastor Sharon Riley, see the present work as preserving this history. She hopes many of the hundreds of her young parishioners and now students get energized to vote.

Riley, who pastors at the Agape Perfecting Praise and Worship Center, said, "We wanted to be sure that our students understood, especially at a high school level, that they understood everything that went into giving us the right to vote. It's also instilling in them a sense of responsibility as citizens in our country."

Reverend Thomas adds that while the past can't be rewritten, it can shape the future by using history to soften hardened hearts.

"In fact, in some of our churches where they teach it, the Black history class is larger than the Sunday school class," she said. "So, it's reaching the unchurched."

While these new guidelines aren't being used yet in the classroom, that's expected to begin this fall. We contacted the Florida Department of Education to ask how teachers are being instructed on implementing them and whether they have leeway to use other material such as content created by the commissioner of education's African American History Task Force. The department did not respond.
The Florida Education Association encourages parents and educators who want to learn about African American history to review the standards guide created by the commissioner of education's African American History Task Force, found here.

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