Teachers struggle to teach students about slavery

Educators struggle to teach their students about the nuances of slavery, its crucial role in shaping U.S. history, and its lasting impact on African Americans, according to a new study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The organization surveyed 1,000 high school seniors across the U.S. Only 8 percent of students could identify slavery as the root cause of the Civil War; 68 percent did not know that slavery ended after Congress passed and the states ratified the 13th Amendment.

Despite a willingness to bring these topics into their classrooms, 40 percent of teachers believe that they receive insufficient instructional support from their state education departments to teach students about slavery.

Virginia first mentions slavery in its state curriculum in second grade, when students learn Abraham Lincoln was the “president of the United States who helped to free American slaves.” That lesson comes two years after students learn about Martin Luther King Jr. According to the study, that oversight means that they have no way to understand the history behind the fight for civil rights.

In Alabama, slavery isn’t mentioned until third or fourth grade, when students learn that it was a cause of the Civil War. Presenting slavery as only one of many causes, the study said, is “a disingenuous representation that obscures slavery’s central role in causing the Civil War.”

Another 58 percent of teachers find their textbooks to be a problem when covering slavery. Textbooks used in Alabama say that a fight for “states’ rights” was the primary cause of the Civil War. When the textbook’s authors mention Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, they highlight his military exploits and ignore that he was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But even when teachers recognize these issues, they struggle with the right approach to the topic. Teachers interviewed for the study mentioned that re-enactments of the Middle Passage and slave auctions are some of the ways to teach their students. Some teachers even report giving their students “slave names” and tying their hands behind their backs. “A discussion follows,” one teacher said, “between the two groups of students [slaves and slaveowners] as to how they felt and why things were done this way.”

Yet that kind of role-playing may not be the best method to use as a white teacher in the Bronx discovered earlier this month when she instructed students lie on the floor during a lesson on slavery. These lessons “cannot begin to convey the horror of slavery and risk trivializing the subject in the minds of students,” according to the study. Such activities can be especially traumatizing for black students.

Textbooks and lesson plans also fail to address white supremacy’s role in the institution of slavery, even though the study says “the American ideology of white supremacy … developed precisely to justify the perpetuation of slavery.” Because students aren’t taught about racism and its legacy, they fail to understand issues like police violence or mass incarceration today.

“Our interest in education about slavery isn’t just about good history education,” Kate Shuster, an independent education researcher who authored the report, said in the introduction to the study. “We are convinced that students cannot fully understand the current state of race relations in the United States if they do not understand the history and extent of American slavery.”

To combat the lack of resources and help teachers better incorporate the history of slavery into their curriculum, the SPLC and Teaching Tolerance created a guidethat includes a framework for instruction and a library of primary sources. The study also recommends using historical documents in classroom instruction and strengthening state curriculum frameworks. The SPLC also suggested that to help students better understand the topic, textbooks need to convey more of the realities of slavery and present the lasting impact of African cultures and ideas.