‘Teach the unvarnished truth:’ Thompson, Frost condemn Florida’s Black history standards

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Several of Central Florida’s Black leaders and descendants of victims of the Ocoee and Rosewood massacres on Saturday denounced the state’s controversial African American history standards.

State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, hosted the “Speak Out Town Hall,” which featured U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost. The event, held in the gymnasium of the James R. Smith Center in Orlando, drew well over 100 people.

Among the speakers were representatives of families victimized in the 1920 Ocoee Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. Famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump was slated to attend but tested positive for COVID-19, Thompson said.

The event’s speakers were not indirect in their criticisms of the new standards, which they said provides a “whitewashed” and “sanitized” version of history.

The standards drew immediate ire for language that requires educators to teach about how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Another controversial section requires the teaching of “violence perpetrated against and by African Americans” in lessons about events of anti-Black violence, including the Ocoee and Rosewood massacres.

The standards were drafted by a work group before they were unanimously approved on July 19 by the Florida Board of Education. The new standards were required because of the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke Act, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which prohibits teachers from instruction that may cause students to feel guilt or psychological anguish because of their race.

Thompson said the standards give a slanted version of history that “does not represent an authentic view of the African American experience.”

“When we see standards that suggest that there was an upside to slavery — ‘because enslaved people developed skills that could be used for their benefit’ — we missed the mark,” she said.

Frost spent his time with the microphone talking about what could be done in Washington to combat DeSantis, who he called an “authoritarian leader.” The congressman said he is pushing for the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education “to launch a full-fledged investigation into what’s going on in Florida.”

“We know that most of the power with education lies with the state, not the federal government,” Frost said. “But there are mechanisms and tools that they can use.”

He added, “We all know about the carrot and the stick … I want to see the stick because we have a problem right now in this state.”

“I want to spend time talking about the blatant authoritarian leader in this state that … believes that Black people who were enslaved received personal benefit,” Frost said to a roar of cheers.

Stephen Nunn, a Tampa-area pastor, is the great-grandson of Julius “July” Perry, the best known victim of the Ocoee Massacre, which on Election Day 1920 saw an armed white mob attack a Black neighborhood, burning homes and churches to the ground and killing an unknown number of people.

Perry, a 50-year-old farmer and labor broker, was lynched in Orlando after registering other Black people to vote.

Speaking of the standards requiring instruction of violence perpetrated “by” African Americans during lessons about events of extreme anti-Black violence — including the one in which his great-grandfather was lynched — Nunn said it’s “just not acceptable.”

He called the standards an “attempt to limit the accurate teaching of Black American history” in Florida’s public schools.

“We have to understand … not just Black students [and] not just Black people, but all students and all people deserve nothing less than the truth,” Nunn said. “They deserve to understand … the blood, sweat and tears that were shed yesterday and [that] has brought us to where we are today.”

Two days after the standards were adopted by the Florida Board of Education, Vice President Kamala Harris held an event in Jacksonville, where she said the instructions were part of “a national agenda … to replace history with lies.”

“Middle school students in Florida [may] be told that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” Harris said. “High schoolers may be taught that victims of violence, of massacres were also perpetrators. …They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not have it.”

DeSantis has said he had no involvement in writing the new standards. He has, however, staunchly supported the teaching materials as well as the members of the work group who put the standards together.

Hours after Harris spoke in Jacksonville, DeSantis called her comments “absolutely ridiculous” and “totally outrageous” during a presidential campaign stop in Utah.

“These are the most robust standards in African American history, probably anywhere in the country,” he said. “Anyone who reads that will see that it’s very thorough, very factual.”

Two members of the work group, William B. Allen and Frances Presley Rice, who are both Republicans, said in a statement that they “proudly stand behind these African American History Standards,” which they say “provide comprehensive and rigorous instruction,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Allen, a professor emeritus of political science at Michigan State University, in response to a question about the “personal benefit” language in the standards, told NPR: “Those who were held in slavery possess skills … from which they benefitted when they applied themselves in the exertion of those skills.” He added, “That’s not a statement that is at all controversial. The facts sustain it. The testimonies of the people who lived the history sustain it.”

Petitions calling for a revision of the standards, which have already gone into effect, were passed out to the crowd on Saturday.

“We’re saying come back to the drawing board; let’s not have a sugarcoated, whitewashed version of the African American experience,” Thompson said. “Let’s teach the unvarnished truth.”