Report: Students and Teachers Know Little About Slavery

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American students and educators know little about slavery, according to a report recently released by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The report, “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” was released Feb. 1 as part of the SPLC’s “Teaching Tolerance” program. The initiative is designed to educate students and teachers on how to improve relations between people of different races and backgrounds. The director of Teaching Tolerance, Maureen Costello, said the history of slavery has been taught poorly in U.S. schools.

“Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and as a result students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America,” Costello said in a statement.

The report surveyed 1,000 high school seniors and 1,700 social studies teachers nationally, and included an examination of state standards and textbooks.

The survey found that only eight percent of high school seniors identified slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, two-thirds didn’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery and only 22 percent could correctly identify how provisions in the U.S. Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.

The report also found that while 89 percent of teachers claim to feel comfortable discussing slavery in their classrooms, their responses to open-ended questions reveal profound unease around the topic and 58 percent of educators said that their textbooks were inadequate on the subject.

Textbook coverage of slavery was lacking as well. Ranked on a scale of 1 to 100 for their comprehensiveness around the subject of slavery, textbooks evaluated by the program earned an average score of 46. In addition, 40 percent of teachers believed their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery.

Evaluators found that slavery is often taught without context, and while many prominent antebellum-era Blacks such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are emphasized, there is little discussion about how slave labor built the country. In addition, many textbooks teach that slavery was an exclusively Southern institution, when in reality it took place in all of the 13 colonies and in all of the states after 1776.

The report recommended fully integrating the subject of slavery into the history curriculum and the use of original documents such as slave advertisements, news and magazine articles about slavery that were published during the pre-Civil War era, as well as making an effort to include the voices of slaves in teaching curriculums.

Teachers can access resources on teaching American slavery at: www.tolerance.org/hardhistory. The resources are offered to educators at no cost.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, and works with the “Teaching Tolerance” project. He is also the younger brother of U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Jeffries said learning about slavery is hard, but it is necessary in order to fully understand American history.

“We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better,” said Jeffries, who wrote the preface of the report. “We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming ‘All Men are created equal.’ But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring ‘Me too.’”