Historian Learotha Williams remembers a poignant experience with a former student. The student grew up in East Nashville, but the first time she heard about the downtown market where enslaved people were sold was in college during a Black history course at Tennessee State University. This knowledge gap evoked anger.
“‘Dr. Williams, I’ve been living here my whole life,’” she said, according to Williams, “‘and this is the first I’ve heard of this.’”
Tennessee’s social studies curriculum requires instruction on a wide range of social, racial, and economic justice topics that cover state history, but some history professors say few students enter their classrooms having learned much about Black history and even fewer have learned about how Black people and people of color influenced Tennessee history.
“They don’t get a whole lot other than the most basic stuff that you might get during Black History Month,” said Williams. “A lot of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, just exemplary African Americans.
“They have a little bit, but it’s not a lot,” he said. “And oftentimes it’s misinformation.”
The issues that Williams has noticed are part of a national deficiency in Black history education, according to research from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. In its curriculum review, the institute found that Black history lessons in K-12 schools often lack cohesion and rigor.
And the distortions are not just in Black history.
Albert Bender, a writer, historian and Cherokee activist, said many Tennessee students and U.S. residents in general know little about Native American history. He cited a 2018 survey that found that roughly 40% of Americans believed Native Americans are extinct.