DeSantis Wants Us to Ignore What Black Children in Florida NeedHistorians in the News
tags: Florida, African American history, academic freedom, Rosewood Massacre, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis
It’s midday on Saturday in Orlando’s Greenwood Cemetery, and just up an incline from an algae-covered pond a group of students encircle a grave. Many are holding a book — some clutching it to their chests the way a preacher holds a Bible.
That book, “A History of Florida Through Black Eyes,” was written by Marvin Dunn, an emeritus professor at Florida International University, who is among those gathered. He quiets the group before telling the gripping story of the man beneath the tombstone. The man was Julius “July” Perry, a Black voting rights activist who was killed — arrested, then dragged from jail by a white mob and lynched — on Election Day in 1920 during the Ocoee Massacre, the culmination of a tragic chain of events set in motion, according to accounts, by a Black man attempting to vote.
The stop at the cemetery was part of the second “Teach the Truth” tour, a field trip to historic Black sites in Florida, organized by Dunn in response to the threat to teaching comprehensive Black history posed by the anti-woke hysteria of the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.
“Teach the Truth” is full of visits to the graves of Black people killed by white racists, cases Dunn told me he focuses on “because those are the ones that are easiest to forget” — the “hard stories” that are, as he says, the ones most in need of preservation.
On this tour there are about two dozen students. One of them is Marcus Green, a 15-year-old Black boy, tall and thin, with searching, almond-shaped eyes, a crown of finger-length braids and a quiet, deliberative demeanor that occasionally surrenders a smile.
As we stand under a shade tree waiting for the tour bus, Marcus tells me what it feels like for him to be a student in Florida right now, that he is balancing a sense of empowerment and fear. I asked why he invoked fear, and he said: “Because you can’t help but feel it.”
His mother tells me that she signed him up for the tour because he was frustrated by the feeling that there was so much of his history that he didn’t know.
The next tour stop was in Live Oak, at the graveside of Willie James Howard, a teenager lynched because he wrote a love letter to a white girl. Her father kidnapped Howard from his home at gunpoint, took him to a bluff overlooking the Suwannee River and offered the boy an impossible choice: take a bullet from a barrel aimed at his head or jump — with his hands and feet bound — and take his chances in the water.
The boy chose the river. The river won.
As Dunn told the story of Howard — whom he has described as Florida’s Emmett Till — Marcus’s face rippled as he repeatedly clenched his jaw and furrowed his brow. Howard was then the same age as Marcus is now: 15. As he told me: “That could have been me.”
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