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History should be taught so as not to repeat it

By Staff | Feb 3, 2015

Most counties in West Virginia mandate the teaching of West Virginia history around the time our children are in middle school. The month of February is the one month of the year that has been dedicated to the further study and advancement of African-American history. Though Black History Month is the designated time of the year that our educators are supposed to teach students about the significant members of the African-American population that have been integral in the shaping of the United States of America, there is an alarming amount of negligence on the part of these educators in that area. If Black History is touched on, it is only casually and there is a truly unfortunate tendency for them to merely address the same handful of “key” figures year in and year out.

The fault of failure to elaborate on the subject doesn’t solely fall on the classroom teachers, though they are the ones charged with the responsibility in most cases. School boards across the state of West Virginia appoint curriculum creators who are responsible for determining exactly what is taught. Surprisingly enough, most of them have failed to implement even the most basic requirements on the topic. In fact, most county school boards leave it up to the individual schools in the counties. The school principals simply pass the decision to the individual teachers and then they determine the subject matter that will be covered. As a result, if the subject of Black History is even addressed at all, it rarely covers anything past the basics of slavery, abolition, select focus on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks’ refusal to be required to sit at the back of the bus that afternoon more than 60 years ago.

There is a wealth of knowledge to be shared on the topic. The abhorrent treatment that thousands of innocent people endured, struggles to endure and survive severe prejudices, sacrifices of property and life, full-fledged attacks-politically and literally-by so many authority figures and law enforcement, and ultimately all of the tremendous accomplishments achieved due to the will and endurance of the many great figures who dedicated their lives to the betterment of the lives of their people.

It is not so well-known or recognized that at least two key figures in African-American history that helped facilitate change have direct ties to West Virginia. After slavery abolition was won in the mid-1860s, Booker T. Washington, a former slave, walked from his former plantation all the way up to Malden, W.Va. – just outside of Charleston – and made it his home. He eventually taught himself to read and communicate with the affluent Caucasian population and secured enough money to open the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he taught newly-freed slaves and children from poor families to be 100 percent self-sufficient; from reading and writing to constructing beds, furniture, and inhabitable structures.

To this day, the Tuskegee Institute still operates and is considered a prestigious learning institution. Dr. Carter G. Woodson was the second African-American ever to graduate from Harvard University. His family was poor and couldn’t send him to school, so as a child he taught himself to read and write as eloquently as anyone else could. Woodson traveled the country promoting the betterment of not only the African-American population, but American society at-large. At one time in his career he and his family moved and settled in Huntington. He became the principal of a school now known as Douglass High School. In fact, of his many accomplishments, Dr. Carter G. Woodson literally founded Black History Week near the end of February in the late 1920s. It received so much positivity and success that it was soon extended to span the entire month.

There were so many others who helped contribute to the advancement of African-Americans in this country, and some even went beyond to help lift those people and groups who were oppressed due to financial issues and their social classes. The Black Panther Party was considered a radical group of African-Americans in the 1960s-early 1970s. They were attacked by the press and the government because of their extreme views on the unfair treatment of the African-American community in particular, but the less fortunate in general. Consistently attacked for their beliefs and demonstration of defiance toward brutalization by law enforcement, they were eventually infiltrated and ultimately dissolved. During their active time, however, they organized health clinics, food drives, legal defense and free food programs, all for the less fortunate. Though they were eventually broken up by unscrupulous government tactics, they are the direct reason that children from families who need a little extra help have the free breakfast and lunch program in schools today.

History is an important thing in any society. It educates us by telling us where we come from and how we got there. Sometimes, however, it seems that society tends to forget the past. It is said that history repeats itself. In 1993, one of the most violent and destructive civil uprisings took place in Los Angeles, over the blatant brutalization of an African-American man named Rodney King. Four police officers were recorded beating him over and over again mercilessly. Though it was all on video, the four officers were acquitted. That vicious riot was a result of a social group looking for justice felt that they, like Rodney King’s brutalization, were insignificant and didn’t matter in our society. Today we have the situations in Florida with the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Caucasian police officer in Ferguson/St. Louis who shot and killed an unarmed African-American man, and the group of Caucasian officers in New York who were not indicted after they suffocated to death an unarmed African-American man for selling single cigarettes. Echoes of 1993 threaten to materialize almost every day now here in our time. We need to look at our history and learn from it. Our children need to know where we’ve been and how things happened, but possibly even more importantly, how to learn it so that they are equipped to make this world a better place for everyone.