Episcopal leaders express frustration, concern over limits on teaching of Black history

By Caleb Galaraga
Posted Feb 1, 2023

A view shows Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House in Washington, D.C. Located along a two-block area of 16th Street NW in the city’s downtown, the area was officially renamed by Mayor Muriel Bowser as “Black Lives Matter Plaza NW” in June 2020. During a series of protests following the death of George Floyd, the D.C. Department of Public Works painted the words “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot-tall  yellow capital letters on the pavement. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] In the 1980s, as a teenager in an all-Black high school in Detroit, Michigan, the Rev. Ronald Byrd Sr., The Episcopal Church’s missioner for African descent ministries, learned he had a place in America.

“I am almost certain that we were one of the first schools around the nation that started teaching, as part of the curriculum, Black history,” Byrd told Episcopal News Service on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. “I learned about the contribution of Blacks to this American experiment in terms of innovation and building communities.”

As Episcopalians and the nation begin to commemorate Black History Month, the substance of what will be taught in the newly developed Advanced Placement African American Studies course continues to make headlines.  On Feb. 1, the College Board announced it had updated the curriculum, purging references to Black scholars associated with critical race, queer, and feminist theories, and making the study of Black Lives Matter optional. It also added “Black conservatism” as an idea for a research project.

The AP African American Studies curriculum was developed with input from professors of more than 200 colleges, including from historically Black institutions. AP courses are college-level courses and exams offered at the high school level. There are AP courses in U.S. and European history, music theory, English, biology and chemistry, among other subjects. The courses are overseen by the College Board.

The board’s Feb. 1 announcement came as a disappointment to some.

“It’s not where it needs to be obviously,” Byrd said. He added that the study of critical race theory at least should have been included as an optional lesson.

In mid-January, based on a draft of the curriculum, the Florida Department of Education blocked the course’s implementation in the state’s public schools, saying it was “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

The state’s action and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s defense of the decision set off a storm of criticism and discussion.

On Jan. 31, over 200 faculty members representing dozens of colleges and universities signed an open letter describing DeSantis’ move to “delegitimize the AP’s pilot curriculum in African American studies” as a form of “censorship and a frontal attack on academic freedom.”

“He [DeSantis] is destroying core educational principles that should be sacrosanct to all leaders in a democratic society,” they wrote.

The Florida decision “invites a perpetuation of ignorance and prejudice,” the Rev. Kim Coleman, president of the Union of Black Episcopalians, told ENS in a statement before the Feb. 1 announcement.

Ignorance and prejudice, she added, “are the breeding ground for bias and racism.”

“The more people understand the history of race relations in this country, the better people from different backgrounds and races are able to come together and have open dialogue,” Coleman said.

Catherine Meeks, who leads The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing, named for the church’s first Black priest, has been involved in anti-racism work for 50 years. “I am outraged at the whole thing,” she said. “It feels so much like the people who want to go backwards, white people who want to continue to disenfranchise Black people and anybody that’s not white, and I’m just distressed about it.”

“We can’t talk about our experience in America without talking about what it means to be Black in America,” said Byrd. “Black history is American history, and the two are inexplicably tied together.”

“Not to talk about it in schools,” he added, “is educational malpractice.”

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed Proclamation 5443, making February the National Black (Afro-American) History Month. “The foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity,” the proclamation read.

It was in a high school classroom that Byrd first began to learn about the contributions of Black leaders and innovators, like Garrett Morgan, who in 1923 and with only an elementary education invented the three-light traffic signal.

Byrd attended high school after the Vietnam War, and said, “There was a whole discussion too about Black bodies going war but not having any rights in this country.”

The AP Black history discussion is taking place during a time of increased police violence against unarmed Black men, most recently the killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers.

In recent years, Episcopalians have been engaging in racial reconciliation work. Becoming Beloved Community forms the cornerstone of the church’s long-term commitment to racial healing, reconciliation and justice. It organizes ministries in four quadrants, one of which is truth-telling or “telling the truth about The Episcopal Church’s racial composition and complicity in systems of racial justice and injustice – past and present.”

“The church itself has got its own work to do,” said Meeks, “but we need to be the leaders doing the work ourselves, standing up against racism everywhere.”

The Rt. Rev. Douglas Scharf, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, a region that has become more diverse in the past decade, said that in the church’s commitment to the work of racial healing and reconciliation, “honest dialogue about cultural history and personal experience” is required.

“In our highly politicized and polarized society, we believe that the church is called to be a community of truth-telling and peace-making,” Scharf said in a statement.

Across 1,200 Episcopal-affiliated schools in the country, curricula decisions are made through the lens of shared values as articulated by the Baptismal Covenant, the Rev. David Madison, the executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, told ENS in a statement.

He added that Episcopal schools, “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.”

There’s been progress on the racial reconciliation front within The Episcopal Church, Byrd said, pointing to both its reparations work and the 2019 racial audit of its leadership,

“The work of Episcopalians is to move the needles of justice and society,” Byrd said, “[towards] more understanding, more diversity, equity…for all of God’s children.”

-Caleb Galaraga is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, Rappler and The Algemeiner Journal.